The Bride with White Hair is a somewhat overlooked, yet formative, contribution to the wuxia revival of the 1990s. So, this newly restored Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment may be considered overdue by genre enthusiasts, who should also be happy about the new extras accompanying this impressive package. The film’s 1993 release was perhaps overshadowed by Tsui Hark’s New Dragon Gate Inn (1992), which can be seen as energising the revival. Hark’s film, a remake of King Hu’s Dragon Inn (1967), which has long been considered one of a handful of wuxia films that defined the genre—along with Come Drink with Me (1966) and A Touch of Zen (1971), all directed by Hu. The wuxia genre can be summarised as mythic sword and chivalry, played out against a historic, rather than purely fantasy, backdrop.
The historic setting for The Bride with White Hair is suggested as the mid-17th-century, during the decline of the Ming and rise of the Qing dynasties. It’s based, quite loosely it seems, on the popular 1957 novel Baifa Monü Zhuan / The White-Haired Witch, by Liang Yusheng, which had already been filmed twice—as Story of the White-Haired Demon Girl (1959), an epic in three parts, and White Hair Devil Lady (1980).
Ronny Yu’s adaptation was in production during another period of national uncertainty. The Sino-British Joint Declaration had been signed in 1984; an agreement that the UK Government was to restore Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China by July 1997. (A sort of mutually agreed and less destructive, Brexit.) So, to exploit this resonance, the timeline of the tale was moved a decade forward to place it near another time of turmoil and transition. Or, as writer Jason Lam Kee-To described it, “political foreboding.”
The once mighty Ming dynasty was overstretched and failing. There had been a series of harsh winters and dull summers, referred to as ‘the mini ice age’, so crops had failed. Add to this devastating floods and plagues across China. Unrest spread and the feudal lords stockpiled food for their armies whilst depriving their poor tenant farmers who’d produced it. A semblance of peace had been maintained between several clans simply because they were evenly matched, but the balance of power rapidly altered. Peasants began to rebel and clans were quick to take advantage of any weakening or lack of resources suffered by their neighbours. Eventually, two nomadic nations, the Mongol Empire and the Manchus, both vied to take control.
There were plenty of orphans and this film follows the fates of a boy and girl taken in and raised by rival clans. The young boy, Cho I-Hang, is played by actress Leila Tong (then aged 12 and known as Lina Kong), in what was already her fourth film before she became better known as a prolific television actress, currently appearing in the drama series Taan Sik Kiu / The Gutter. Cho I-Hang is trained in the way of the sword by the Wudang Clan—and yes, the famous rap posse Wu Tang Clan took their name from the same source. The Wudang Clan are a legendary Taoist sect that appear in many works of fiction, being a composite of several historic temples and kung-fu practices. Think of it like an Asian version of Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table.
The young Cho I-Hang is taught to value all life and gets lost one night whilst making his getaway after rescuing a goat from the butcher’s knife. The bleating of the kid attracts a pack of hungry wolves, but the boy can’t bear to abandon his charge in order to save himself. Miraculously, the wolves are called away by some haunting flute music and he follows, seeking its source, until he sees a little girl atop a rocky knoll surrounded by the wolf pack that have adopted and raised her. He then passes out from exhaustion and grows up haunted by this vision that may have been the dream of delirium.
The first act is, by far, the most successful portion, as it fully embraces the fairy tale aspects of the story and celebrates the expressionistic artifice of the sets and painted backdrops. There’s some lovely cinematography by Peter Pau, who would also work with Ronny Yu on the visually sumptuous The Phantom Lover (1995) and go on to truly shine with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)—the film that confirmed the global success of a wuxia revival.
We see the boy grow up in an extended montage as he learns the arts of calligraphy and combat. However, his teacher (Lok-Lam Law) has an ambivalent attitude to his most promising pupil. On one hand, he’s pleased with his astonishing martial arts prowess; but on the other, he resents him as a rival to his own daughter, Ho Lu-Hua, whom he hopes will one day take over as the first female head of the temple. By the time they’re adults, they are the most proficient protégés of the Wudang. Ho Lu-Hua (Kit Ying Lam) has a crush on Cho I-Hang (Leslie Cheung), but destiny has different plans for them both.
At this point, the film jarringly changes direction from a good-natured coming-of-age story into a bloodthirsty action film. Things get complicated when Cho I-Hang is caught up in the messy aftermath of a skirmish where troops mercilessly slaughtered a group of villagers who had stolen some rice to feed their children. Suddenly a mysterious figure robed in white appears and, literally, takes the soldiers apart, using a very long whip, almost joyously predicting how many parts each body will be cut into. I think nine bits was the best score!
Speaking of scores, Richard Yuen’s rousing music is probably the most consistently effective element of the entire film. It really underlines the repressed passions of the central characters and the tear-jerking moments only really work when Yuen highlights the emotional cues for us. He was fresh from writing the soundtracks for Swordsman II (1992) and Once Upon a Time in China II (1992), both directed by Tsui Hark and two of the finest examples of the wuxia revival.
After the massacre, Cho I-Hang is helping an injured woman give birth when the vigilante stops to lend a hand and inadvertently lets her mask slip. Although it’s been many years, Cho I-Hang recognises her and is certain this is the mysterious flautist who had once saved him from hungry wolves. He’s told that this is the infamous Lien Ni-Chang (Brigitte Lin). She’s also known as the ‘Demon Wolf Girl’, having been raised by wolves and later adopted into a barbaric clan who are now encroaching on Manchu territories. He realises then and there that she’s the girl for him! But how can that ever be as they are soon to be on opposing sides in war?
The ‘barbaric’ clan is clearly a stand-in for the Mongol hordes from the north of China, but here they’re portrayed as a mystic cult led by conjoined twin brother (Francis Ng) and sister (Elaine Lui), who use superstition and narcotics to keep Lien Ni-Cheng under their control. The conjoined twins camply relish their villainy and are depicted as monstrous, though one more than the other.
This is the outmoded trope of deformity signalling villainy. Whilst it may offend any conjoined twins in the audience, the existence of such twins with different genders is so rare as to be unheard of. Of course, in days of yore, anyone who was physically different enough to set them apart was to be revered or reviled, and burdened with superstitious ideas of divine retribution. So, as the story is set centuries ago, it’s likely those with strange physical attributes would have been marginalised and treated as ‘the other’ as a matter of course, without any form of informed debate.
The fact that one of them is given a sense of humour and shown to be an unwilling accomplice goes a little way to mitigating this lack of taste, but that wasn’t the only thing that got in the way of this working for me. As the twins deliver their dastardly lines and laugh maniacally, standing back to back, I just couldn’t help being reminded of Jessie and James of Team Rocket, comedic villains in the Pokémon animated series. I was waiting for Meowth to make an appearance! I wonder if these were the original inspiration? Don’t worry, if that means nothing to you, then it won’t detract from the movie.
There’s also some dodgy stereotyping in action here that hints at misogyny. Of the conjoined twins of evil, the female is portrayed as the more malicious and manipulative. To some extent, this echoes the relationship between Cho I-Hang and Ho Lu-Hua: I-Hang is a pacifist, who’d rather fend off armed adversaries using nothing but a bunch of reeds, as opposed to Lu-Hua who kills an unarmed peasant for accepting a gift that was too good for him! When it comes to war, I-Hang defers taking command of the Wudang army to Lu-Hua, whilst he and Lien Ni-Cheng attempt to escape the violence together…
There are many moments of brief, yet poetic beauty jostling with sillier scenes, gratuitous wire-work sequences, superfluous supernatural elements, and blood-spattering violence. One moment you may be smiling at the drunken antics of the young Cho I-Hang, then recoiling from the realistic aftermath of a battle fought with blade weapons—I mean, there are bits of bodies strewn across the screen!
No, The Bride with White Hair certainly isn’t boring. Not for one minute. But it never quite gels, leaving me ultimately unaffected and unsatisfied. Maybe it was the incongruity of serious emotional elements being too rapidly diffused by acrobatic combat and butting up against the comedic elements? Perhaps it was simply the predictability of the story that, once set in motion, just unravels to tragic inevitability. Perhaps one should cut it plenty of slack, though, as it precedes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by seven years!
The Hong Kong production and distribution company, Mandarin Films, had only been established for a year when they gave the project to director Ronny Yu. He was initially apprehensive as this would be his first foray into wuxia territory, which at the time was also out of fashion. When he read the popular novel, though, he was drawn to the romantic thread that tied sprawling historic events together and emotionally engaged him. Around the same time, he saw another film based on a popular novel that had reinvented its story by focussing on a doomed romance: Francis Ford Coppola’s luscious take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992).
Yu knew that the romantic angle had to be pushed to the fore and much of the political intrigue and historic details dropped. At the first script meeting, he told writer Jason Lam Kee-To to think of it as a reworking of Romeo & Juliet and simply described a ‘framing image’ of a young woman with white hair, wearing a wedding dress, standing atop a snow covered mountain. He offered no more guidance until the first treatment was complete.
Jason Lam Kee-To then collaborated with editor David Wu on writing the script as well as regularly checking with the novel’s author that they were remaining true the essence of the book. David Wu also envisaged the story spreading over two films and worked in plot threads he could pick-up in a sequel he was already planning. So maybe that’s why The Bride with White Hair doesn’t feel wholly satisfying then, because the end is not really the end..?
The Bride With White Hair Part 2 went into production almost immediately. Again Brigitte Lin and Leslie Cheung reprised their roles, but this time with David Wu at the directorial helm. Unfortunately, it does nothing to mitigate the pessimism of the first instalment and, what’s worse, isn’t included in this Blu-ray release! What a missed opportunity for a definitive release that would’ve really grabbed fan attention.
HONG KONG | 1993 | 89 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | CANTONESE
Blu-ray Special Features:
- Limited Edition O-Card slipcase featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling [2000 copies].
- 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from a stunning new 4K restoration (this restoration has been newly colour graded exclusively by Eureka Entertainment and officially approved by director Ronny Yu). The restoration is great, but the original print has a lot of high contrast that is very late-1980s, even though it was shot in the early-’90s, which gives it a sort of vintage pop video vibe. I feel the 1080p image does it justice enough.
- Cantonese audio, available in original stereo and restored 5.1 presentations.
- Optional English and Mandarin audio tracks.
- Newly translated English subtitles. These really make a huge difference and, in comparison to the English-language dub, give so much more detail and meaning. One doesn’t really see the same film or appreciate Jason Lam Kee-To’s script without them. As well as being a little ‘sanitised’, it seems nearly all the historical and cultural references were simply omitted from the English dub.
- Brand new feature length audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival). Djeng is certainly knowledgeable after decades of involvement in Asian Film Festivals where he’s chaired many panels and interviews some of the biggest names in Asian cinema, including Ronny Yu a few times. He talks us through nearly all aspects of the production from concept to release providing detailed cast biographies, which is always appreciated for Eastern actors who are often overlooked in western indexes. He shares plenty of behind-the-scenes information, such as the importance of Emi Wada’s presence in the costume department as she had won an Academy Award for ‘Best Costume Design’ for her work on Ran (1985) and would design costumes for Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), amongst many others.
- Audio commentary with director Ronny Yu. It’s always a big plus to get commentaries from personnel actually involved with making the movie in question and who better to talk the viewer though the production? He recounts how he was not initially interested in the project as two versions of the story had already been filmed but, after reading the novel, realised he wouldn’t be doing a remake, but picking out the thread that had moved him emotionally—the relationship of Cho I-Hang and Lien Ni-Chang, which he saw as a Romeo & Juliet-style tragedy. Throughout, he emphasises how much of a collaborative effort the whole production was, with input from various members of cast and crew. He sings the praises of editor, David Wu with whom he worked closely to plan all the key sequences.
- Brand new interview with director Ronny Yu [41 mins]. In which he talks with Frank Djeng via Zoom in a friendly, festival format chat. They talk through his career and how the spectacle of Hollywood epics inspired him to become a director. We learn that the visual nods to Coppola’s Dracula are no accident as this was one of the films he asked his cast and crew to watch, along with Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Ridley Scott’s The Duellists (1977), Sydney Pollack’s The Way We Were (1973), as well as Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and Dreams (1990). He cites Bride as a turning point in his career, when he got smarter about filmmaking and when he began angling for a career in the West. He realised that the story had to be kept very simple to satisfy the Hong Kong audience and also appeal to distributors in the US. He calls cinema the art of compromise and advises aspiring directors to, “forget what’s not essential and fight, to the death, for what you think is important!” He also reminisces about his long friendship with the late Leslie Cheung.
- Brand new interview with actor Joe Tay [21 mins]. Possibly now better known as a rights activist and pro-democracy advocate, he fondly recalls his feature debut as one of the young ‘temple brothers’ and childhood friend of the central character. Along with Leslie Cheung, he was one of only a few of the cast to dub their own character’s voice in post-production.
- Brand new interview with screenwriter Jason Lam Kee-To [56 mins]. For me, this was the gem of the extras package, his generous and insightful comments are really interesting for any aspiring writer. He begins by clearly placing the project within the context of his own career, having already penned The Master (1989), The Swordsman (1990) and Chinese Ghost Story 2 (1990). He summarises the working relationship with Ronny Yu who was most interested in what he calls “the visual chemistry” than the story and left the writing pretty much to the writers. Lam Kee-To shares credit with his writing team, including Cheung Siu-Han for structuring the story. He then goes on to give a detailed break-down of the process from script to screen and points out some surprising background facts, including the off-screen family connections linking the cast and crew…
- Brand new interview with editor David Wu [81 mins]. Which serves as a third audio commentary as it’s presented as an audio track behind the movie. Conducted with Frank Djeng during lockdown, he begins with an overview of his career and how he came to be involved with the production. It turns out he was very ‘hands-on’ throughout and wrote the shooting script which he regularly adapted in collaboration with fight-choreographer Philip Kwok and director Ronny Yu before drawing up the storyboards, often on the morning of shooting the planned scenes. He also had some input to the sound design and even collaborated with Leslie Cheung in composing a melody that became a recurring motif and was incorporated into the theme song. He talks about the challenges of the rushed schedule to meet the summer release date and discusses his approach to editing, decrying what he calls the ‘ping-pong’ approach in favour of his more jazzy approach where he will often cut ahead of the beat to subtly surprise the viewer and keep their attention.
- Brand new interview with composer Richard Yuen [24 mins]. He provides an overview of his career leading up to his involvement with film after being seduced away from his science degree at a Canadian university by the pull of its drama society and moving back to Hong Kong in the 1980s where he met Brandon Lee who invited him to compose his first score for Legacy of Rage (1986), which was also directed by Ronny Yu. He talks about his influences and shares some anecdotes about how a tune hummed by Leslie Cheung in a tent came to be the main theme for The Bride…
- Archival “making of” featurette. Looks like it’s from a VHS copy and helps get a feel for how many in the west would’ve first seen the film back then!
- Limited Edition collector’s booklet featuring new writing by James Oliver and Travis Crawford [2000 copies]. The content is informative, though not startling insightful. The cover artwork is beautiful, but the interior pages don’t look like they passed across the desk of a graphic designer. Having said that, their basic layout and design naivety reminded me of those cinema programmes that I used to buy as souvenirs. Whatever happened to them? The fashion seemed to fade away after the 1980s… It’s the very minimum one should expect in a limited-edition collectors’ release!
Cast & Crew
director: Ronny Yu.
writers: Ronny Yu, Lam Kei-to, Elsa Tang & David Wu (story by Liang Yusheng).
starring: Brigitte Lin, Leslie Cheung, Francis Ng, Elaine Lui, Yammie Lam, Joseph Cheng, Eddy Ko, Law Lok-lam, Pau Fung & Jeffrey Lau.