AKA: The White Haired Witch
Director: Jacob Cheung
Writer: Kang Qiao, Wang Bing
Producer: Don Yu Dong, Huang Jianxin
Cast: Fan Bing Bing, Huang Xiao Ming, Vincent Chiu, Shera Li Xin Ru, Wang Xuebing, Du Yiheng, Nicholas Tse, Yin Zhusheng
Running Time: 103 min.
By Kyle Warner
Liang Yusheng’s popular wuxia novel Baifa Monu Zhuan has been adapted for television and film multiple times since its debut in the 1950s. The adaptation you’re most likely familiar with is Ronny Yu’s crazy 1993 film The Bride with White Hair starring Brigitte Lin in the title role and the late Leslie Cheung as her lover. It was a popular film upon its release and it has become something of a cult classic in the years since. While I’m not the biggest fan of The Bride with White Hair I did enjoy how it mixed kung fu, romance, fantasy, and horror into one package without the stitches coming undone. Now writer/director Jacob Cheung Chi-Leung (Battle of the Warriors) brings us his adaptation of Yusheng’s novel, 2014’s The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom. Compared to The Bride with White Hair, Jacob Cheung’s film is relatively tame and seems more geared towards a wider audience. Cheung does without much of the horror and fantasy elements of Ronny Yu’s film, but somehow his White Haired Witch does come undone, thanks mostly to too much going on and too little effort given to make it all feel worthwhile.
In the waning years of the Ming Dynasty, corruption runs rampant and the people are suffering. The vigilante hero Jade Raksha AKA Lian Nishang (Fan Bingbing) and her band of heroes protect the weak from the tyrants. Elsewhere in the story, the new leader of the Wudang, Zhuo Yihang (Huang Xioaming), is tasked with bringing medicine to the ailing Emperor. When the pills are switched with poison and the Emperor dies, Yihang is the prime suspect. Circumstances and action sequences pull Nishang and Yihang together. Though initially they do not trust one another, they slowly fall in love and join forces to challenge the corrupt men of power who threaten the land and its people.
White Haired Witch is both an overplotted and underwritten film. The script is just chockfull of characters, subplots, and political intrigue that could’ve easily been edited down to better focus on the heart of the story… However, there seems to be an inner conflict about just what the heart of the story actually is. I would believe it to be the romance between our two heroes. And while Fan Bingbing and Huang Xioaming have the most screen time, the film’s true focus seems to be elsewhere, resulting in a rather jumbled story. Over the course of the film we are treated to two frame-up assassinations, an assortment of factions with their own heroes and villains, and a small helping of history thrown in amongst the fiction. It all makes for a very bloated and frequently confusing film. Too often I was left wondering who a character was and what his motivations were. Over time I figured it out: some of these characters are just simply there. They don’t all have a purpose. They’re just extra pieces to an already crowded puzzle.
White Haired Witch feels underwritten because while the film is always busy with new things to do and people dying left and right, it somehow manages to seem empty. A large number of the supporting characters are introduced with their names and titles printed on the screen. I’ve generally never been a fan of this method of character introduction. It asks the viewer to remember characters and factions so that the screenwriter doesn’t need to bother so much with character development. Some of these characters may be well-known to either fans of the book or those with knowledge of this part of Chinese history, but for other viewers they’re just names and faces. Similarly, the film throws in a bit of history involving the “Case of the Red Pills” which involved the fatal poisoning of the Emperor. The Red Pills fit into the plot well enough, but it still feels like an underdeveloped footnote in the story.
Perhaps the most disappointingly underwritten part of the script is our two heroes. She’s gorgeous, he’s handsome, and they stare at each other longingly, but that’s not enough to make for a believable romance. The tragic love story should’ve received more care than it does here. When inevitable heartbreak occurs, the moment is hollow. There’s no chemistry here, no fire, just pretty people and CGI spectacle.
Fan Bingbing is good in the title role. She’s gorgeous but she doesn’t get by on looks alone. She brings a cool intensity to her character, making her White Witch both intimidating and alluring. Vincent Zhao also puts in a good performance as one of the film’s central villains and his skillset brings more believability to the action. Huang Xiaoming’s less impressive as Zhuo Yihang. Instead of emoting he does his best to appear dashing and handsome in every scene, reminding me a bit of a lovesick puppy that’s just begging you to love him back.
Much of the swordplay featured in the film is aided by wirework and CGI. While I prefer more visceral, old-school martial arts, I’m not opposed to CGI-infused action sequences in a martial arts movie. When done right, CGI and wires can make for very graceful action. Sadly, that’s not what we get here. Thanks to choppy editing, the choreography has no elegance to it. The action is serviceable, but it’s never all that impressive.
In the film’s final moments Leslie Cheung’s song from The Bride with White Hair plays over the onscreen action. Though obviously meant as a respectful nod to the popular film and its star, the song forced me out of the movie for a moment as I realized with absolute certainty that I’d rather be watching Ronny Yu’s film instead. Still, fans of The Bride with White Hair may want to give this film a try for curiosity’s sake if nothing else. It features many of the same central ideas and lead characters, but it’s a wildly different movie (villainous Siamese twins are nowhere to be found in Jacob Cheung’s film, just for example). Based on what I’ve read, White Haired Witch is closer to the original material of Yusheng’s book. However, White Haired Witch serves as proof that the more faithful adaptation is not always the better one.
When The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom debuted in Chinese theatres it was given the 3D treatment. For those interested, White Haired Witch arrives on Blu-Ray from Well Go USA with only the 2D version of the film included on the disc. Like most Well Go USA Blu-Rays, White Haired Witch features excellent picture and sound. We also get about 20 minutes of behind-the-scenes material. Much of those 20 minutes are little more than puff pieces for promotional purposes, but there was one interesting segment about how Huang Xiaoming was filming an action sequence on wires when his wire snapped, dropping him about ten feet. He suffered a severe foot injury which required surgery. Huang eventually returned to the set in a wheelchair. While he recovered, they filmed Huang in a tall chair so that it looked as though he was standing next to his co-stars. I learned this information after watching the film and I am half-tempted to rewatch certain sequences to see if the trick can be detected… but ultimately I don’t care that much.
Jacob Cheung’s White Haired Witch isn’t an awful film – it keeps up a fast pace and there’s enough talent in front of the camera to make the thing watchable. But thanks to a poor screenplay and some lacking visuals, it’s not a terribly interesting film, either. White Haired Witch might be fine as a diversion on some rainy night, but overall I found it to be an incredibly underwhelming film experience.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 4.5/10