Filmart Flashback: When Ronny Yu’s 'Bride With White Hair' Gave Wuxia a Sexy Edge
One of Yu's final Hong Kong films was this supernatural tale before he headed to Hollywood to direct 'Bride of Chucky' and 'Freddy vs. Jason.'
In 1993, it was clear the golden era of the 1980s was coming to a rapid end for the Hong Kong film industry. The death knell may not have been sounded just yet, but with the Chinese government's looming takeover of the island, things were going to change. In the same year, director Ronny Yu (who would go on to a different kind of renown with Bride of Chucky and Freddy vs. Jason) rolled the dice and, in a last gasp, reinvented the supernatural martial actioner. Audiences weaned on comedic, action-heavy, chaste adventures such as A Chinese Ghost Story and Zu: Warriors From Magic Mountain were initially perplexed by the dramatic, erotic, very grown-up The Bride With White Hair, one of the last great Hong Kong films of the period, and now an undisputed classic.
Made for around $3 million, the film starred popular favorites Brigitte Lin and the late Leslie Cheung at their most blindingly beautiful. It was a technical vanguard as the first Hong Kong film to feature Dolby digital sound, and Yu managed to pull together a (now) legendary crew to realize the wuxia world of Liang Yushing’s novel: Japanese costume designer Emi Wada (Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, Zhang Yimou’s Hero), art director Eddie Ma (Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China II) and cinematographer Peter Pau (Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). When all was said and done, The Bride was an effortless pre-'97 allegory as well as a visually immersive and sensuous martial arts drama for the ages.
Cheung plays Yihang, a Wu Tang swordsman and heir to an alliance of eight clans who’s less interested in the warrior’s life as he is in freedom and forging his own path. When he meets a beautiful and nameless assassin who was — wait for it — raised by wolves (seriously), he names her Nichang (Lin) and the two fall madly in love. Nichang, though, is a ward of the maniacal cult leader and Siamese twin Wushuang, whose male half (an incomparable Francis Ng) is in love with her. Nichang offers herself to him in exchange for her freedom, and after Wushuang’s female half (Elaine Lui) ruthlessly points out Nichang’s disinterest, Wushuang goes on a jealous rampage and wipes out the leaders of the Wu Tang. When Yihang later questions Nichang’s involvement in the massacre, she takes his distrust as a betrayal. Her emotional meltdown turns her hair white — and she lays waste to what remains of Wu Tang before turning her back on Yihang forever. It is positively Shakespearean.
The political commentary in The Bride was among the first to inform Hong Kong films of the period, and its subtlety is what makes the film a great introduction to the territory’s cinema for nonbelievers. The push-pull of where the lovers belong (with their clans? on their own in the unknown?), the lack of self-determination for them and the assurances of broken promises add a chewy subtext to ponder, but it never gets in the way of the main story — the feverish romance that remains burned into all of our minds 25 years later. Lin’s sexual ambiguity and Cheung’s vague androgyny upend expectations of movie couples to brilliant effect, while simultaneously demonstrating what real screen chemistry looks like. When Lin finally lets loose with her legendary death stare, it’s only slightly more intense than the eroticism that preceded it. If only Fifty Shades had this much spark. ...