'The White Haired Witch of the Lunar Kingdom' ('Bai Fa Mo Nu Zhuan Zhi Ming Yue Tian Guo'): Film Review

White Haired Witch Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Bona Film Group

White Haired Witch Still - H 2014

A visually stunning action-drama weighed down by overstuffed, underdeveloped ideas.  

Fan Bingbing stars as the titular character in yet another adaptation of Liang Yusheng's classic Chinese fantasy novel.

In this age of ever-expanding franchises, the norm is to break a grand narrative into multiple strands and make each of them go a long way. Running against the trend, The White Haired Witch of the Lunar Kingdom sees director Jacob Cheung — whose acclaim lies with delicate human dramas such as Cageman and Intimates — dyes his adaptation of Liang Yusheng's wuxia novel with a multiple-hued mix of earthbound court conspiracies, gravity-defying vigilante fights, contemporary-style undercover blues and a Romeo-and-Juliet-style romance featuring the film's titular character.

Packed into the comparatively short span of just over 100 minutes, all the changes in scenery, characters and tone only settle into one big overstuffed spectacle. Those well-versed with the original story (or the many film and TV adaptations of that have surfaced in Hong Kong and China during the past four decades) would find the film brimming with underdeveloped personalities and ideas, while unfamiliar with the source material or the historical context of China at the tail-end of the Ming Dynasty would find it a challenge to catch up and engage emotionally with the proceedings.

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It's a shame that Cheung's first film in seven years is eventually weighed down by this rushed, uneven sprawl of a story credited to five screenwriters, each of whom possibly bringing their own references (ranging from political-parable historical dramas like last year's Life of Ming, to the contemporary dramas like Infernal Affairs) and their perspective in how to make The White Haired Witch connect with a new generation of viewers. Their attempt in reinventing this tale sits uncomfortably with the one central element that couldn't be moved — that is, the troubled (and sloppily presented) romance involving the titular character (played by the porcelain-skinned Fan Bingbing).

Still, the film is a visual feast to behold: It counts Tsui Hark as an artistic consultant, and lit up by Wu Jiakui's production design, costumes from Oscar winner Timmy Yip (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and the rare glimpses of Stephen Tung's ever-bankable action choreography in the frustratingly truncated fights. It remains to be seen whether all these would appeal to Chinese audiences as the film opens in China on Aug. 1, as the Transformers frenzy finally subsides and a time when the market is awash with CGI-free relationship dramas such as Tiny Times, Continent and Girls.

Despite its flaws, Cheung is due some credit here, as he has strived to reintroduce into the story all the historical and political contexts that Ronny Yu's now-legendary adaptation in 1993 left out. So rather than being reduced to a battle between righteous martial arts heroes and evil cults — as Yu did to his adaptation more than two decades ago — White Haired Witch is again dressed up with a proper historical context, with its characters forced to choose sides in one of the most tumultuous times in Chinese history.

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The one who gets hit with these contradictions the hardest is Zhuo Yihang (Huang Xiaoming), as he is forced to first trade in his free-spirited demeanor to take up the mantle of the Wudang martial-arts clan, and then take up position in corrupt prime minister Wei Zhongxian's court (as an official commissioned to quell dissent in the military ranks) and home (by marrying his god-daughter). Meanwhile, even the villains are allowed to struggle with their conscience, as power-grabbing politicians (like Wei, played by Yi Dahong), cynical army captains (Wang Xuebing's Murong Chong) and double-dealing baddies (Vincent Chao's Jin Duyi) are revealed as just victims of circumstance, their sang froid merely the result of a resignation to a fate they couldn't control.

Not that all these twists and turns in these substantial emotions are given ample time to play out, unfortunately, as fights, rows or betrayals are quickly resolved so that the story could be shuttled forward. And all this saved time and bandwidth is basically wasted on the unconvincing romance between Zhuo and Nian Yishang (Fan). While soul-searching and social mayhem abounds, the meet-up, make-out and break-up of this pair of ill-fated lovers is thinly-sketched and filled with cliches, with the woman-warrior's complex personality — she is at once Robin Hood who robs the rich and helps the poor, and a Maid Marina who would cry and die for Zhuo — given very short shrift. Not even the best wardrobe or special effects — the film will hit Chinese screens on Imax and 3D — could paper such cracks, flaws magnified by the relentless pace in which threads are thrown up and them quickly settled and discarded.

Venue: Press screening, Hong Kong, July 21, 2014

Production companies: Bona Film Group, Omnijoi Media, Youku Tudou, Wanda Pictures, Bona Entertainment

Cast: Fan Bingbing, Huang Xiaoming, Vincent Chao, Wang Xuebing

Director: Jacob Cheung

Screenwriters: Kang Qiao, Wang Bing, Guo Jinle, Shi Heran, Zhu Yale

Producers: Yu Dong, Bu Yu, Victor Koo, Jerry Ye, Jeffrey Chan

Executive producer: Huang Jianxin

Director of photography: Ardy Lam

Production designer: Wu Jiakui

Costume designer: Timmy Yip

Editor: Kwong Chi-leung

Music: Peter Kam

Visual Effects Supervisor: Clement Cheng

Action director: Stephen Tung

Artistic consultant: Tsui Hark

International Sales: Distribution Workshop

No rating; 103 minutes