One thing I’ve often noticed about Asian cinema is its focus on the loner, the rebel, and the one individual who stands out from society. It might be a lonely hitman (The Killer, Ballistic Kiss), a renegade cop (Fireworks, Hard-Boiled), or a martial artist torn between his honor and his loyalty (e.g., any Bruce Lee movie). This doesn’t seem too odd to us in America, which has always seemed to glorify the loner, the underdog, and the renegade. However, Asian culture is traditionally much more regimental, with focus on family and corporate honor before personal honor. Now, I’m no sociologist, so I can’t explain why or how that is. What’s more, I’d be a fool not to think that Asian culture is much more nuanced than that.
However, it doesn’t strike me as odd that Asian cinema would have this focus. After all, at their very heart and soul, movies are usually about escapism. Most (but not all) movies are about archetypes, about those things that we can’t be in the real world, but we picture in our imagination. And this is no truer than in Asian cinema, with its emphasis on mystical martial arts, powerful swordsman, avenging students, and men who live by their own code of honor. And although The Bride with White Hair is, on its surface, a love story, it’s also a powerful movie about the consequences of the individual putting their desires and concerns before that of the greater good. In other words, it’s a film about a loner.
The Bride with White Hair isn’t really about the titular female, but rather tells the story of Cho Yi-Hang, a skilled swordsman and future leader of the powerful Wu-Tang clan. However, Cho finds it difficult to fit in with the rest of his clan. Despite his unparalleled skills, he’s always causing mischief with other clans and defying his elders. But more than that, he’s grown tired of living in such a brutal, bloodthirsty world. He sees no reason for fighting rival clans simply because they’re rivals, nor does he believe that his own clan is above reproach.
In spite of his antics, however, Cho is picked to lead the clan’s forces against an evil cult (presumably for no reason other than the fact that they challenge Wu-Tang’s orthodoxy). Of course, Wu-Tang’s disgust could also stem from the cult’s leaders; a pair of Siamese twins joined at the spine played with wild (and quasi-incestuous) abandon by Francis Ng and Elaine Lui.
Leading the cult’s forces is the mysterious wolf-girl (played by the luminous Brigitte Lin), a vicious warrior who packs a bullwhip capable of reducing men to a pile of limbs. When the wolf-girl attacks the world-weary Cho, he refuses to fight. Instead, Cho rescues her when she is attacked from behind and nurses her back to health. Shockingly, the two quickly fall in love, and decide to leave their violent worlds behind (I guess that’s the sort of thing women will do after men have sucked poison from their bodies).
Of course, this doesn’t sit well with the duo’s respective clans. Both Cho and the wolf-girl (whom he names Lian) are branded as traitors. For Lian, this distrust is nothing new; she’s grown up with it her whole life. To assuage her fears, Cho promises to never distrust her. Before she can leave with Cho, Lian must formally part ways from the evil cult. This proves to be difficult, since one of the cult’s leaders happens to be in love with her. Being a Siamese twin, showing and consummating his love has always been a little difficult, and constantly being needled by one’s conjoined sister probably doesn’t make things any easier.
This leads to one the movie’s greatest scenes. In order to leave the cult, Lian must walk down stairs strewn with glass and rocks while being pelted and beaten by the cult’s members. Watching Lian struggle against the violent mob, only to silence them with one stare, is worth the rental price alone. Meanwhile, Cho has been called back to Wu-Tang, only to find the whole clan decimated. When Lian arrives, expecting Cho to leave with her, he resists. Although he’s always defied the clan, he’s torn between his love for Lian and sense of guilt at having abandoned his duty. And as a result of Cho’s distrust, all hell breaks loose.
There’s certainly a lot to like about this movie. However, while the above description might paint the picture of an emotionally-subtle, deeply-textured film about love, this is no In the Mood for Love. There’s something delightfully over-the-top about this, almost perversely so. When Lian and Cho express their love for each other, it usually involves lengthy groping and cavorting in some cavern pool or slow-motion embraces under waterfalls. The battles are done with the same amount of abandon and gusto, with plenty of exploding bodies, severed limbs, and wounds that spray blood with the force of a firehose (à la Duel to the Death and other blood-soaked wuxia tragedies).
Visually, the film is a feast to watch. The cinematography makes striking use of color and light, from the deep blues of the nighttime battles to the garish caverns of the evil cult, from the cathedral-like fortress of the Wu-Tang clan to the beautiful silhouettes of Cho’s youthful memories. The film seems to borrow heavily from theatre, with much of the film taking place on sets as opposed to real locations. At times, this becomes a bit too noticeable, but it also creates the feeling of watching a huge stage production come to life with flying swordsman and powerful wizards battling it out before your eyes.
Granted, much of the film goes fairly overboard, almost to the point of being distracting. This is in stark contrast to the film’s tragic opening, as Cho perches on his mountaintop refuge. He guards the one thing that might return his lover to him, all the while contemplating the horrible choices that drove her away in the first place. He defies imperial decree out of love, just as he’s always done with everything else, consciously putting his own desire before everyone else (including, possibly, his own beloved). But over the movie’s course, it’s easy to lose sight of that amidst everything else going on. As such, it’s hard to recommend this movie as wholeheartedly as I’d like to. It is, however, worth watching for Leslie Cheung’s performance and the always-radiant Brigitte Lin (and her defiant trial by fire).