The Bride With White Hair (Bak fat moh lui zyun)

Hong Kong (1993) Dir. Ronny Yu

Sorry to open with a spoiler but there are no weddings in this classic martial arts romp but there are some nifty fights, plenty of severed body parts and decapitations, and some steamy (for a mainstream Hong Kong film) scenes.

Legend tells of a special flower that blooms once every 20 years with the properties to restore life, “turning white hair to black” but it is currently being guarded by a sullen warrior, Zhuo Yihang (Leslie Cheung). Yihang had been groomed as the successor to the chieftain of the Wudang Sect by Taoist Ziyang (Pau Fung) as a noble swordsman, the pressure of which left him disillusioned with his life.

One night when he was young, Yihang was saved from a pack of wolves by a young girl with a flute. As an adult, Yihang is chosen to lead an army of the eight sects to fight the evil cult ruled by conjoined twins Ji Wushuang (Francis Ng and Elaine Lui), whose most fearsome killer is Wolf Girl (Brigitte Lin). Yihang realises she is the girl from his youth; they fall in love and vow to abandon their current lives, which won’t be so easy.

With characters loosely based on Liang Yusheng’s 1957 novel Baifa Monü Zhuan (Story of the White Haired Demoness), director Ronny Yu took a break from action thrillers to try his hand at a wu xia fantasy, turning elements of Yusheng’s work into a romantic tragedy. The Bride With White Hair owes a huge debt to Tsui Hark, aesthetically and in the wire fu choreography, yet Yu is successful in making this very much his own.

The original novel has Lian Nichang – the name Yihang gives Wolf Girl – as the leader of a gang of bandits, whilst Yihang is a Wudang member looking to save the Sect from being implicated in an uprising against the crown prince. Yu saw it as a Romeo and Juliet type romance, and as it transpires, he may have been onto something although it does mean his story plays along more conventional lines.

Opening with a group of soldiers looking to find the magical flower to help revive the dying King only to be fought off by Yihang as he is “saving it” for a woman, this initially is implied to be the main storyline, especially after following an onscreen narration to set the scene, but Yu was being cute in actually sharing the ending first. After this, we go back to when Yihang was a young boy (Leila Tong), skilled at martial arts and swordplay but more interested in goofing off than being a hero to society.

His ambivalence rubs people up the wrong way, like childhood friend and secret admirer He Luhua (Yammie Lam) who wants his position, which Yihang would gladly give to her, but the sect elders refuse to have a woman lead the army. Yihang doesn’t believe in killing but will dish out a beating if necessary; meanwhile Wolf Girl is less reticent about slicing heads off, but unbeknownst to her evil masters, she often plays vigilante against sects bullying poor people.

Part of the reason why this film has an 18 rating is down to the graphic decapitations on display courtesy of Wolf Girl’s intense whipping skills, separating many a head from its shoulders and even cutting bodies in two! When Yihang and his estranged love finally reunite, things get a bit steamy but compared to CAT III films of the era, they are very tame, but they do stand out as being as close to erotica as wu xia hitherto been.

Because she grew up an orphan with no name, Yihang names Wolf Girl Lian Nichang, the first step to her claiming independence from the evil cult, but Ji Wushuang have other ideas. Perhaps the most original conjoined twins, they were once separate people but after practicing dark arts, the sect fused them together back to back. The female half is the one who taught Wolf Girl martial arts, whilst the male half wants to bonk her, his concession for letting her go.

Even with the main characters afforded the sharing of their backstories, motives for their actions still feel flimsy and vague, clouded by the moral ambiguity of the world they inhabit. At the start, Yihang is lectured about good and evil, but everyone is painted in shades of grey, thus it takes a while to settle on who deserves our emotional investment the most, the central romance making it easier once it reaches full bloom.

Very much a product of its time, the screen is bursting with vivid colours, mostly blue for the eerie night sky, which looks fantastic in this new HD transfer with the obligatory Tsui Hark mist applied. The action sequences are often rendered in slow motion, limited mostly to swordplay but always energetic, with plenty of flying about in a manner that is far more graceful on wires than via CGI.

Yu has assembled a strong cast, with Francis Ng and Elaine Lui the only ones to ham it up as villain Ji Wushuang, but they work well together. However, it is the chemistry of Leslie Cheung and Brigitte Lin that makes this film. As gratuitous as their lustful romps may be, the spark created certainly burns through the screen, whilst the writing avoids contrivance in the set up. Plus, Lin’s character is way ahead of her time and should be a more used template for wu xia female leads.

A sequel to The Bride With White Hair was rushed into production the same year to capitalise on its success, with Lin and Cheung returning but with David Wu directing. By all accounts it is a disappointment, a shame given the way this film ends. However, we are fortunate that this bold and surprisingly romantic opus exists, and whilst new fans can discover it via this new Blu-ray release, older fans can fall in love with it again.