Whilst travelling across the mountains of Northern China, a corrupt government official and members of the Wu Tang Clan are ambushed by bandits. Help arrives in the form of the White Haired Devil Lady (Leanne Lau Suet-Wa), a veiled super-heroine raised by wolves and taught mystical kung fu skills by a legendary master. She and her Amazon warrior women kill all the bandits, but also ensure the official returns all the money he stole from the local peasantry. When one Wu Tang warrior objects, she cuts off his fingers! Later, callow sword hero Cho Yi Han (Henry Fong Ping) stumbles upon the White Lady’s secret lair by accident, but impresses her with his kindness and flair for poetry. Equally smitten, Cho promises never to reveal their meeting. Unfortunately it so happens Cho is part of the Wu Tang Clan and his grandfather was the official she just robbed. Nevertheless when the clan stage a surprise attack on White Lady, Cho helps her escape.
The lovers return to White Lady’s lair in time to see her precious Heaven Sword kung fu manual stolen by scarlet sword maiden Shen Hu, hoping to impress her father, venerable martial arts master Old Iron. Instead she incurs his wrath when the book is stolen again, this time by evil Imperial bureaucrats. A repentant Shen Hu and her father assist White Lady in retrieving the book and become a surrogate family to the orphaned heroine. Meanwhile, Cho Yi Han’s family are accused of colluding with the fair-haired femme fatale and poisoning an imperial magistrate. Eventually White Lady discovers the tangled web of enmity between clans and petty feuding has been orchestrated by the imperial palace itself.
This is the most obscure screen version of “Romance of the White Haired Maiden”, the classic wu xia novel by Liang Yusheng that famously inspired The Bride with White Hair (1993) and also the schlock classic Wolf Devil Woman (1982). Most recently the character was naively misinterpreted in the otherwise enjoyable Disney movie: The Forbidden Kingdom (2008). Unlike those Hong Kong movies, White Haired Devil Lady (also known as Sorceress’ Wrath) was a mainland Chinese production helmed by Cheung Yam-Yim, a director active since the early Sixties whose most famous film Shaolin Temple (1982) launched the screen career of the young Jet Li.
Taking the title role is Leanne Lau Suet-Wa, appearing under her Mandarin name Liu Hsueh-hua, a popular and critically acclaimed actress who went on to sign with Hong Kong’s legendary Shaw Brothers studio and appear in the likes of The Lady Assassin (1982) and Bastard Swordsman (1983). Her white haired heroine is often jarringly jolly, more flirty and vivacious compared to future screen incarnations, although this matches the light-hearted treatment of an essentially tragic fable. It is a little like comparing an Arthurian romance from the golden age of Hollywood with something like Excalibur (1981).
Cheung Yam-Yim delves a little deeper into the politics underlining Liang Yusheng’s original novel. The imperial palace plan to buy off invading bandits using money stolen from the common people, so fuel the feud between martial arts clans so there will be no-one to protect them. But the complex story is told in a haphazard way. Cheung races through events, rarely pausing for breath, resulting in a structure resembling a 1920s Perils of Pauline serial, literally “one damn thing after another.”
The film benefits from beautifully photographed mainland scenery. Never mind those intricate sets and models used in Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), these heavenly peaks and spectacular sun-drenched vistas are the real thing, albeit repeated ad nauseam. Possibly as a symbol contrasting nature’s tranquillity against the turbulent world of mortal men. The frenetic swordplay is well choreographed with plenty of mystical pyrotechnics thrown in, though as with everything else in this movie you’d best pay attention before it darts past like a blur.