Director: Ronny Yu
Screenplay: Kee-To Lam, David Wu, Ronny Yu
Based on a Novel by: Yusheng Liang
Starring: Brigitte Lin, Leslie Cheung, Francis Ng, Elaine Lui, Kit Ying Lam, King-Kei Cheng, Eddy Ko
Country: Hong Kong
Running Time: 89 min
BBFC Certificate: 18 (TBC)
Ronny Yu’s 1993 film The Bride With White Hair was based on a novel by Liang Yu-sheng that was first published in 1957. The story had been turned into films twice already, in 1959 and 1980, as well as several TV series. So it was a popular novel that had already been well-mined by the entertainment industry. Yu and screenwriter Kee-To Lam, therefore, decided to change quite a few details to make it stand out (losing a lot of the political intrigue of the original in particular). They also cast big stars in Brigitte Lin and Leslie Cheung to entice audiences and it paid off, as the film was a great success and spawned a swiftly made (but still quite well-regarded) sequel, released in the same year.
Part of the revival of period wuxia films that came out of Hong Kong following Once Upon a Time in China in 1991, The Bride With White Hair is a film that’s been on my personal radar for a long time, but I’ve never seen. I’ve been a fan of Hong Kong martial arts movies since I was in my late teens in the late 90s and snatched up any titles I could find to watch on the burgeoning DVD format. Somehow I never came across this at a decent price though so it passed me by, despite my eagerness to see it. Eureka, who are steadily working their way through re-releasing Hong Kong classics from the 80s and 90s on Blu-ray, have answered my prayers though and are releasing The Bride With White Hair in a Blu-ray package loaded with special features. I eagerly snapped up a screener, to see if my decades of waiting were worth it.
The film sees Cheung play Cho Yat-Hang, a young man that has been groomed from a child to become the next mighty leader of the Wudang Sect (a.k.a. Wu-Tang Clan). His training has made him an impressive swordsman but he isn’t actually interested in fulfilling his master’s wishes. He’s more interested in helping the poor and needy than in ruling the lands with an iron fist and leading men into battle.
He’s also forever struck by a memory from his childhood when he was saved from a pack of hungry wolves by a young girl that played her flute to lure them away. He’s thrilled then when he discovers a mysterious skilled swordswoman (played by Lin) that reminds him of the ‘wolf girl’.
Indeed, it turns out to be the very same person and the pair fall in love. However, the wolf girl, who Cho names Lien Ni-Chang, is bound to work as an assassin for the conjoined-twin leaders of the evil Mo cult, both named Gei Mou-Seung (played by Francis Ng and Elaine Lui), who have been terrorising the country.
When the Gei Mou-Seung twins, the male side of which loves Lien, order her to kill Cho and his clan, she decides to leave their grasp. To do this, she’s forced to endure a punishing ritual, which she survives, but the twins have another trick up their sleeves to scupper any chance Lien has of getting together with Cho.
The Bride With White Hair was reportedly made in a bit of a rush to hit a summer deadline and the production hit numerous problems, including a typhoon, but it doesn’t show. Yu, cinematographer Peter Pau (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), art director Eddie Ma and costume designer Emi Wada (Ran, Hero and House of Flying Daggers) worked together to create a stunningly beautiful film. It’s hyper-stylised, shot largely at night (or at least in a studio to look like night) with high-contrast lighting, to give it a thick, moody atmosphere. The pivotal love scenes in the middle of the film counter this, with bright light shimmering off the water of the flooded ruins in which the central couple hide out.
With this bold stylisation framing a classic Romeo and Juliet-inspired love story, the film very much inhabits a grand melodramatic tradition at its heart, rather than a straight-up period action movie.
That’s not to say the film is without martial arts thrills though. There are still a fair few fights spread throughout the running time and these are surprisingly gory, with multiple dismemberings and blood spurts more akin to the Lone Wolf and Cub series from Japan than most wuxia coming out of Hong Kong at the time. They reportedly had to make a few trims to avoid a Category III certificate, in fact.
Lin and Cheung were not martial artists but their relationship is given more emphasis than the action anyway and the action is of a fantastical, wire-assisted style that requires less traditional training in martial arts. Besides, if Yu went with martial artist stars they would likely have struggled to find a pair with the acting chops of Lin and Cheung. There’s an exaggerated style to all the performances in the film, which is the norm for this style of film made in Hong Kong back then, but the pair have great chemistry and capture the brooding intensity required to give their characters depth.
Speaking of depth, although the film seems quite simple on the surface and, indeed, is quite straight forward at its core, there is a fairly strong subtext at play under the surface. The Bride With White Hair is set during a pivotal period in the foundation of modern China – the end of the Ming dynasty and the establishment of Qing rule, making particular reference to this change. This was a period of great unease, mirroring what Hong Kong was experiencing at the time of the film’s production and release, with the impending handover to China on the horizon. Plus, a core theme of the film surrounds characters being forced into something they’re supposedly born to do, even though they don’t want to. This also links with the worry many Hongkongers had about being forced to possibly lose the freedoms they had under British control, despite the fact the area was originally part of China. This unease has once again reared its head in Hong Kong in recent years, so the film retains this modern relevance.
So, there is more to the film than the straight-forward, grand, operatic drama it first seems to be. Not that being just that is necessarily a bad thing. With lashings of sex and violence adding to the whole affair, it’s a feast to the senses, whichever way you look at it. The vaguely campy approach and heavy emphasis on style might put some off, but if you can tap into what Yu and his team were going for, you’re in for a treat.
The Bride With White Hair is out on 9th November on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Eureka Classics series. It looks great, with rich colours and fairly strong detail, though in a couple of bright spots the digital grain struggles a little and there’s a slight loss of detail. This is barely noticeable though – I just spotted it here and there when viewed on a big scale through my projector. Audio is solid though.
There are a host of special features included in the package:
– Limited Edition O-Card slipcase featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling
– 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)
– Cantonese audio, available in original stereo and restored 5.1 presentations
– Optional English and Mandarin audio tracks
– Newly translated English subtitles
– Brand new feature-length audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival)
– Audio commentary with director Ronny Yu
– Brand new interview with director Ronny Yu [41 mins]
– Brand new interview with actor Joe Tay [21 mins]
– Brand new interview with screenwriter Jason Lam Kee To [56 mins]
– Brand new interview with composer Richard Yuen [24 mins]
– Brand new interview with editor David Wu [81 mins]
– Archival making of featurette
– Limited Edition collector’s booklet featuring new writing by James Oliver
Frank Djeng’s commentary is great. He has a huge amount of background knowledge on the film and its cast and crew. He also has an added connection to the production as it was the first film he was hired to promote in the US in his then-new job at Tai Seng.
Ronny Yu’s commentary has some interesting facts about the production too but it’s a bit of a stop-start affair, so doesn’t flow and engage like the other. He loses steam completely after close to an hour and only comments sporadically towards the end. It’s a little dry too. His interview is decent though as he’s guided along by Djeng, so there are no lulls. He provides thoughts on the film and its production, describing how it was a tough process and he really had to fight to get it made how he wanted.
I really enjoyed the epic David Wu interview, which runs under the film like another commentary. He talks of what got him into the industry, describing his love for cinema and inspirations (David Lean was a big one) before going into talking about his time working on The Bride With White Hair. He has a wonderful story about working with John Woo too. He also talks about his technique, which, being an editor myself, I found most interesting. It’s a wonderful interview and a nice change from the usual director or critic discussions.
Joe Tay’s interview spends a lot of time talking about Leslie Chung, who he refers to as ‘Gor Gor’. He clearly has a lot of love for the man and was a massive fan of his work, so was very happy to be part of the film, particularly given his own lack of experience doing feature films. Tay gives a particularly sweet story about shooting his big final scene with Leslie.
Richard Yuen’s interview is enjoyable. I appreciated seeing and hearing him play through some segments on the piano and his computer. He did a lot of concerts with Leslie after the film too and has a nice story of how they worked on the theme song together late one night during the shoot.
Jason Lam Kee To’s interview is decent too. He goes into great detail on the development of the story, discussing what was changed from the source material and what further tweaks were made closer to production.
The archival ‘making of’ is a straightforward promotional film so a little fluffy but it has some behind the scenes footage which is always a pleasure to see.
The booklet contains some valuable further analysis and is recommended, as usual.