Monday, September 17, 2007

Dir. by Ronnie Yu

Sword & Sorcery may seem like it is mired in endless pastiches of Conan coated in a rancid syrup of Tolkein, a fur-clad barbarian finds the magic bowling trophy and slays the evil wizard, thus fulfilling his destiny, at least until the advance is spent. Well, I’m here to tell you that Sword & Sorcery thrives on Chinese movie screens only over there they disguise it by calling it historical. But when you hear a movie called wu xia it’s really a fantasy set in a historical frame.

The Bride with White Hair is set in the last days of the Ming Dynasty in China. Cho Yi Hang (Leslie Cheung) is an orphan adopted by the Chief of the Wu Tang Clan (the Chinese martial arts society, not the NY rappers, though some Dirty Ol’ Bastards are in the mix). Cho is the handsomest guy, the best swordsman, and the most popular fellow, so naturally he’s going to be the next leader. His girlfriend is the beautiful and ambitious Lu (Kit Yang Lam). For Cho the future is bright.

Alas, he lives in interesting times. The foreign tribes are on the move. The Ming are tottering, and worst of all the Evil Clan has awoken. The Evil’s are lead by the Chis (Francis Ng and Elaine Lui, in a hysterically over-the-top performance)a brother and sister pair of twins who do everything (I mean everything) together. Then Cho meets the Wolf Girl, a feral child raised to be a kung-fu killing machine. She might chop a guy into nine parts, but she’s nowhere near the ball-busting shrew Lu is. Though Cho is poised for greatness, he finds it comes at a cost. The people around him start showing a brutal and bloodthirsty streak. Cho just wants peace, but of course he’s not gonna get it.

Bride has a lot going for it. Delirious musical scenes with dancing devil worshippers follow brutal mediations on the nature of power. The sets tend to the minimal, and practically all action takes place at night, as if to emphasize the night that is descending on Chinese culture. Black humor pervades this Chinese Gothic tale of love and betrayal. While some people are put off by the camera tricks and “wire-fu” choreography, this is a movie about people. Sure they can run straight up trees or stop 1,000 falling flower petals with a sword, but they are people. While Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon set the gold standard for wu xia film, The Bride With White Hair deserves a very honorable mention.

-Dave Hardy


Charles Gramlich said...

You're right on here. I was so irritated when critics loved "Crouching tiger; Hidden dragon," but blasted anything smacking of western fantasy. I liked "Crouching tiger," but it was very, very clear that it was a sword and sorcery type of movie. Yet the critics didn't seem to see this.

Dave Hardy said...

I guess the Chinese stories can be called wu-xia or "Flying Swordsmen" genre. But really it's the equivatlent of the Western fantasy genre.

BTW, Fantasist is doing a Asian themed fantasy anthology. I'd rather like to see the result.