Sunday, April 05, 2020

The Bride with White Hair 1 & 2

Are both of these on Amazon Prime Video because I bought discs from Hong Kong and the world's various film industries are mocking me, or is it just that when a company makes a nice new HD transfer for one thing, it makes sense to use it for others?

I joke, but for all I know, it won't be on Prime next month, and I'll still have these good-looking discs on my shelf.

Hopefully, the upcoming weeks/months of doing my best to stay in will help me move discs from the shelves of movies I've never seen to the shelves of movies that I have seen before. A few months ago, while hanging with the usual Wednesday night crew in the comic shop, I joked about how I'd never get to the end of the movies and comics and books I've stockpiled because they look interesting and I may not be able to access them later unless I got lyme disease or something, and, well, here we are at "or something".

Anyway, here is the "recent arrivals" shelf in my living room, which probably goes back a couple of years and will most assuredly have new things added to it by the time we're let out. Still, this honestly feels like my best chance to get out ahead of it in a while.

Not shown: The dedicated 3D, Johnnie To, John Woo, Pang Ho-Cheung, and Tsui Hark sections (yes, I've been buying a lot from Hong Kong over the past couple years, but, well, see paragraph 2). I'll mostly be starting from the middle and working my way out, alternating Hong Kong and elsewhere, though not strictly in order (I'm looking forward to catching up with New Veronica Mars, but the temptation to form double features and make progress with shorter chunks is big). Next up: Fritz Lang!

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

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

Ronny Yu's The Bride with White Hair may not quite be a masterpiece, but it's an essential Hong Kong movie, elevating the kung fu horror genre to something near mythic. Like the great myths, it's grandiose in every way possible, sexy and romantic on the one side and full of gory fantasy melodrama on the other, not realistic in any way but also never precious or too clever for its own good.

At the top of Mount Shin Fong, a man guards a magic flower with healing abilities that only blooms every twenty years. He is Cho Yi-Hang (Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing), trained in the martial arts since he was a child. Though the presumed heir to Wu Tang Clan master Tzu Yang (Bao Fang) - over the objections of master Pai Yun (Law Lok-Lam), who would see his daughter Ho Lu-Hua (Yammie Lam Kit-Ying) next in line - he never had the ambitions to lead it, preferring instead to use his prowess to help the oppressed. Among those doing the oppressing are a pair of twins named Chi Wu-Shuang (Francis Ng Chun-Yu & Elaine Lui Siu-Ling), leaders of a death cult who have raised a "wolf girl" (Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia) into a living weapon. She and Yi-Hang fall in love, but can it survive when their masters are on a collision course?

Of course not - Yi-Hang wouldn't wind up hanging out on the top of a frozen mountain in the first scene if everything was going to turn out fine - but Yu and his team don't spend a lot of time wallowing how tragic and doomed they are. There's intrigue enough to keep everyone busy and the occasional detour that doesn't really go anywhere but also doesn't waste time. Yu and his co-writers, including editor David Wu Dai-Wai, do a good job of keeping Yi-Hang and the wolf girl at the center while not diminishing the other things of consequence - one part of the story never seems to be waiting on another, and the battles of armies and passions of individuals are tied tightly together.

A charismatic performance by Leslie Cheung at the center is responsible for a great deal of that; Yi-Hang can come across as flip or insouciant but reveals depth in the way he hesitates when forced to take something seriously. He's a good contrast to the hyper-masculine world of martial arts without ever seeming weak or uncertain, and sexy as heck with his emotions all over his face and clear ease with his physicality. Lin's performance initially comes off as more hardened - Yi-Hang may have been raised by demanding martial-arts masters, but she clearly knows she's part of something awful - but she makes everything Lien feels after meeting Yi-Hang more potent, whether joy or defiance or rage.

And then there's Francis Ng and Elaine Lui, chewing every bit of scenery they can find as the cult leaders, though Yu is more apt to feed them unusual blocking than actual scenery. Like a lot of Hong Kong horror, The Bride with White Hair often will eschew the backdrops, letting a backdrop flooded with a single color set the mood for a world that does little to hide how it exists on a soundstage, but Yu uses this to feel heightened, and never more so than when Ng and Lui are dashing about the stage, their strange back-to-back staging unnatural enough to unnerve but energetic, as Yu finds ways to let one or the other have the entire focus or heighten how much they have seemingly grown to loathe each other as they snipe.

It's no wonder they cause so much bloodshed, with Yu and action director Phillip Kwok Chun-Fung keeping everything fast-moving, going for clear and exaggerated violence rather than pretty choreography. The mayhem and grotesquerie builds so that by the time the final battle comes, Yu can throw a lot of severed heads, bisections, and spurting blood vessels at the audience, and more or less everyone can get run through and have it feel like it's just a way to emphasize betrayal as opposed to an almost-certainly fatal injury.

Maybe by that point it's a little bit much for those who mostly want grand, doomed fantasy romance. It's the sort of pure pulp that other filmmakers would try to transcend, but Ronny Yu embraces it to create a bloody, uncompromised bit of entertainment that sprawls across genre but never seems out of place

Also on EFilmCritic

Bak fat moh lui zyun II (The Bride with White Hair 2)

* * (out of four)
Seen 4 April 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

The Bride with White Hair 2 came out so quickly on the heels of the first - a mere four months later - that one wouldn't be surprised if they were planned as a single work with a cliffhanger or the sort of change in focus where both halves benefit from a split in the middle. That's not the case, though: Where the first movie was bold and a career high point for director Ronny Yu, the second is just a cost-controlled horror sequel, the sort that passes the baton to someone who worked on the first to try and get something out of a less-expensive young cast that may be good-looking but whose charisma doesn't add up to Leslie Cheung's between them.

It's been over a decade since Yi-Hang's doubt enraged Lien Ni-Chang (Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia) so much that she transformed into a white-haired witch who slaughtered the martial artists aligned with her lover, and while Yi-Hang (Cheung) has been waiting for a magic flower to blossom in the hopes that it will return Ni-Chang to normal, the eight clans have been rebuilding, gathering on the occasion of the wedding of Wu Tang's prize student Fung Chun-Kit (Sunny Chan Kam-Hung) to the lovely Lyre (Joey Man Yee-Man). History repeats when Ni-Chang shows up, with Kit barely escaping with his life and nursed back to health by tomboyish friend Moon Ling Yuet Yee (Christy Chung Lai-Tai) while Lyre is taken to the compound where Ni-Chang has started a cult of her own, this one comprised of misused women, with first disciple Chen Yuen Yuen (Tiu Gwan-Mei) eager to turn Lyre against Kit.

Watching the two films back to back, the shift in general style is immediately striking, even beyond going from the wide Panavision image of the first to the flat-lensed shape of the second. Director David Wu Dai-Wai, who co-wrote and edited both films, seems less visually ambitious where motion and design is concerned, having cinematographer Joe Chan Kwong-Hung capture some nice compositions as people gather but seldom has the same eye for action and movement (interesting, as the two films share action director Phillip Kwok Chun-Fung). What's most telling is how the second derives little benefit from being superficially more polished - the sets seem more built-up and the picture has less grain, to the extent that I wondered if this movie had undergone a restoration, but it seems plain, taken out of a dreamlike fantasy world but not quite seeming real.

The film also lacks the romantic core that gave the first Bride so much of its life. Sunny Chan and Man-Yee Man are good looking young people, but they feel like teenagers with crushes where Lin and Cheung were sexy; the attraction between Kit and Lyre is never powerful enough to be as important to the quest as revenge/justice for Ni-Chang's massacre. You get more out of Christy Chung, whose Moon is clearly fond of Kit, and whichever one of the half-dozen interchangeable young men from the other clans who join them. Brigitte Lin seems almost bored here, with Ni-Chang reduced to being little more than a one-note villain without equals to play against. Tiu Gwan-Mei seems like she's got a chance to do something interesting with true believer Yuen Yuen, but little comes of it.

Though Leslie Cheung is first-billed - he was one of Hong Kong's biggest film and music stars at the time - Yi-Hang is barely seen throughout the film, mostly in flashbacks and an opening scene that certainly could be cut or repurposed footage from the first. When he does show up for the last fifteen minutes or so of the film, the younger cast is easily swept aside, and one almost gets frustrated at what the film could have been as Yi-Hang and Ni-Chang are immediately drawn to each other, but there's obvious tension around how she's been trying to live some sort of life despite being full of rage at his betrayal (and her best friend feeding her anger) while he's been waiting to give her some flower that will magically solve everything. One can't help but look at that and think that there's a potentially worthy sequel if the filmmakers were looking for a quality follow-up.

That, apparently, wasn't nearly as important as getting something into theaters as quickly and cheaply as possible, and 25 years later, the first Bride with White Hair is a classic and this is the thing you might as well watch if they both show up in the same place at the same time, or if you're trying to see everything Cheung or Lin was in, and not much else.

Also on EFilmCritic

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