The Bride With White Hair [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (3rd November 2020).
The Film

Hong Kong Film Award (Best Cinematography): Peter Pau (winner), Best Art Direction: Eddie Ma (winner), Best Costume & Make Up Design (winner), Best Film Editing: David Wu (nominated), Best Original Film Score: Richard Yuen (nominated), and Best Original Film Song: Leslie Cheung (nominated) - Hong Kong Film Awards, 1994

I-Hang (The Phantom Lover's Leslie Cheung) has grown up training in the martial arts of the Wudang Clan as the heir apparent to his master Tzu Yang (The Legend of Drunken Master's Fong Pau), internalizing the latter's black and white assertions about the world that all clans are bad except for the Eight Clans of which he is leader and that there can only be conflict between good and bad, an impassible gulf between the Earth and the underworld; and yet, he has never forgotten being rescued as a child by a wild girl raised by wolves. Since then – along with a meeting with a soldier (Rumble in the Bronx's Eddy Ko) whose stories have also blurred the lines between good and bad for youthful I-Hang – a streak of rebellious righteousness has marked I-Hang's maturation, testing his master's resolve and making him vulnerable to attack from Pai Yun (soap star Lok-Lam Law) who wants his daughter Ho Lu Hua (Flirting Scholar's Kit Ying Lam) to succeed as chieftain; and yet, I-Hang has always been able to justify his actions which threaten to bring scandal upon the Wudang; be it stealing a goat before its owner could slaughter it in the interest of protecting all living things, brawling with members of one of the other clans who each is reluctant to testify against him less they must admit the wrongdoings he punished them for, or his killing of a man in a dual mitigated by the grateful testimony of the victim's much-abused family. One night when I-Hang is wandering the forests when he should not be, he encounters the Wolf Girl now grown into a beautiful woman (Peking Opera Blues' Brigitte Lin), but little does he know that she is a hired assassin for the demon cult of conjoined twins Gei Mou-Seung (Infernal Affairs II's Francis Ng and Elaine Lui) who have sworn vengeance against the Eight Clans for banishing them years before. Conflict arises between Tzu Yang and Pai Yun when the former appoints I-Hang to lead their fighters against the cult even though he feels that such killing is against his conscience. Although Ho Lu Hua is jealous of I-Hang's attraction to Wolf Girl, she uses his distraction to take over. When I-Hang wants to retire from the clan, Tzu Yang and Pai Yun believe he has been bewitched by Wolf Girl. When Wolf Girl survives torturous trials to leave the demon cult, however, the male half of Gei Mou-Seung pines for her while the female half comes up with a way to be rid of her by destroying I-Hang's avowed trust in Wolf Girl's goodness.

Based on the wuxia novel by Yusheng Liang, filmed twice before in 1950 and 1980 and twice subsequently as a TV series in 2012 and a CGI-riddled 2014 feature, The Bride with White Hair catapulted director Ronny Yu (who had been toiling for over a decade with low-budget genre efforts with Golden Harvest) to international arthouse recognition which sadly lead to a Hollywood career consisting of the similarly visually stylish but empty Bride of Chucky, Formula 51, and Freddy vs. Jason. Made at a pre-Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon time when the wuxia genre was on the wane, The Bride with White Hair keeps it story simple and revels in its visual stylistics, playing like a simultaneously slicker-looking but less audacious Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain. Once one gets a sense of the plot, it becomes obvious that the film is just coasting on the canted, hyper-saturated photography of future Academy Award-winner Peter Pau (Dracula 2000), expressionistic sets of Eddie Ma (Black Mask), and the rich accompaniment of Richard Yuen (Once Upon a Time in China II), and the charisma of Cheung and Lin; however, that is quite deliberate as Yu has since revealed that he initially had little interest in adapting the property until he realized it might be a means of breaking into the international market. The love story is rather perfunctory. More complex is the film's distinction between I-Hang's chivalrous acts of killing and his growing awareness of the utter ruthlessness of the Eight Clans, from Ho Lu Hua blithely revealing that she executed a man found with her jade pendant (which I-Hang gave him to provide for his newborn son after the man's wife dies in childbirth), his childhood friend Yu (The Gods Must Be Funny in China's Joseph Tay) justifying the executions of several villagers to root out possible spies of the demon cult, to his master's inability to see anything that is not either completely good or evil. While newcomers can take or leave The Bride with White Hair, it nevertheless occupies an important place in the exposure of Hong Kong action cinema to the West in the late eighties and nineties.

Video

Released theatrically in the U.S. Tai Seng Video's theatrical arm Century Pacific in 1994 but not until 2000 as a direct-to-DVD release in the U.K. by Tartan Video, The Bride with White Hair arrived on DVD in the U.S. and U.K. in the same non-anamorphic letterboxed master struck directly from a theatrical print that appeared on the Hong Kong and Korean imports. The American Tai Seng DVD was kitted out with extras but the non-anamorphic master was only superseded by an anamorphic upgrade in Australia and France (the latter not English-friendly). A 4K restoration (director-approved but not –supervised) appeared Hong Kong and China in 2017, and France last year – all three packaged with the film's sequel co-directed by Yu and editor Wu who had penned the shooting script for the first film – but that transfer turned out to be graded too brightly. Eureka's master has been regraded to the intended darker levels in consultation with Yu and former Tai Seng marketing manager Frank Djeng (who produced many of the extras on this disc), and the 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen transfer does not immediately impress if one does not take into account Pau's use of contrasty lighting, gels, and diffusion to create a fantasy landscape – although the film proper is set during the Ming Dynasty (with a lot of the novel's political and historical detail pruned away), it is full of demons, witches, and humans who fly about on wires – but facial features and clothing textures reveal detail in close-ups (when Pau bothers to hold on them for more than a few seconds). Blacks look deeper and colors richer without the noise of the admittedly ancient DVD master, resulting in the striking visual experience that viewers of the older DVDs could only imagine must be somewhere in the murk and noise.

Audio

The Bride with White Hair was one of the early Hong Kong Dolby Stereo titles along with Supercop and Once Upon a Time in China III – the mix had to be done in Canada at Sharpe Sound Studio where the DTS mix for Yu's follow-up film The Phantom Lover was also created – and Eureka has included the Cantonese and English dub tracks in LPCM 2.0 stereo along with the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix of the Cantonese track and a Mandarin DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. The stereo tracks are full of directional effects from sword slashes to the wirework while music has the most spread across the sound stage (all of the dialogue is post-dubbed with Cheung and Tay dubbing themselves even though that was usually not the practice even for known actors at the time). The English dub is typically goofy with a couple laughable supporting character voice casting choices and some amusing variances from the Cantonese track (like the climactic Cantonese "This is a comfortable way to sleep" to the English "This must be heaven. At last the bitch is off my back!"). Optional English subtitles have been included. At least one note from the proofing of the subtitles was not deleted after the change was made, and this mistake made it to the final discs (Eureka is currently deciding how to address the issue).

Extras

Extras start off with a pair of audio commentary tracks. The audio commentary by director Ronny Yu was recorded for the Tai Seng DVD while Yu was in Los Angeles working on Bride of Chucky in which he recalls being attracted to the Romeo and Juliet aspect of the story more so than the action since the project had already been filmed twice before. He recalls having to get the permission of the author who was living in Australia and being told he could make whatever changes he wanted so long as the author did not "lose face." Of his approach to the film, he recalls instructing Pau and Ma to "think different" as well as receiving negative press at the time for hiring Japanese costume designer Emi Wada (Ran) to provide a fresh take on the period costumes. He also reveals that he cast Cheung even though he would have to be doubled for the stunt work for his "James Dean" quality, as well as casting a female child actress to play young I-Hang simply because of the look he wanted. He also discusses Pau's cinematography and the Dolby sound mix as part of the more technical section of the talk. The second audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng of the NY Asian Film Festival is a brand new track in which he recalls being hired by Tai Seng shortly after The Heroic Trio had made its mark internationally and hoping to seek out something that would be similarly notable. Acknowledging the presence of the Yu track which he produced, Djeng tries not to overlap, focusing on the novel and the changes made to the script including the wraparound, as well as additional background like Yu's desire to shoot on location in Canada but ending up shooting on Hong Kong sound stages due to the time constraints to finish the film and ready it for Cannes. He also notes that Cheung – who had largely retired from singing and was living in Canada at the time – had to be convinced to take the role and suggests that the narration was added to further exploit singer Cheung's voice on the soundtrack. An additional audio track features an audio interview with editor David Wu by Djeng over first 79:26 of the film which, like the disc's other interviews by Djeng, was conducted remotely due to the pandemic. Wu and Djeng discuss the former's early career as editor at Shaw Brothers, his lifelong love affair with film and the many Hollywood and Asian filmmakers who inspired him as an editor and later director. Of his co-writing credit on the film, he explains that Yu entrusted him with writing the shooting script knowing what Yu wanted visually and how it would cut together, which meant that the actual shooting script was written daily before the film's night shoots (he also takes credit for injecting some humor into the script).

Besides the original “making of” featurette (12:00), the disc includes a quartet of new video interviews. First up is a new interview with director Ronny Yu (40:37) conducted by Djeng in which the former cites the major influences of the film to be Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans, Ridley Scott's The Duellists, and Sydney Pollack's The Way We Were. He also discusses how the wuxia genre had been done to death by the time of the film but it was still new to him, and wanting to expand beyond the Hong Kong market by simplifying the plot, focusing on the romance, and minimizing the film's dialogue. In the interview with actor Joe Tay (21:24), the actor speaks fondly of Cheung – using the nickname "Gor Gor" – reveals that the contract stipulation of him dubbing his own performance was Yu's idea, and that the modern manner of speaking by his and Cheung's characters in contrast to the older characters was also intentional. Also included is a interview with screenwriter Jason Lam Kee To (56:47) who reveals that he was hired by producer Raymond Pak-Ming Wong (Ip Man) because he had experience in the genre with The Swordsman and that Yu admitted to not knowing much about the genre or that period of Chinese history but he also wanted to make the plot easy to understand for Westerners. He also mentions some of the other writers he brought in to work on the early drafts. Lastly there is an interview with composer Richard Yuen (23:21) who recalls the difficulty of scoring and synching during that period of Hong Kong filmmaking since he often was not given final cuts to view, collaborating with editor Wu, and with Cheung who came up with the idea for a theme song on the set (Yuen would end up working for Cheung on several concerts after the film). There is no trailer for the film on the disc.

Packaging

The first 2,000 copies come with a limited edition O-card slipcase featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling and a 27-page collector’s booklet featuring film credits, viewing notes, Blu-ray credits, and two essays. In "Between Two Worlds: The Bride With White Hair in Context and Beyond in Context and Beyond", James Oliver notes a revival of interest in older genres of movies in Hong Kong at the start of the nineties, particularly the wuxia as a response to the "then-imminent handover of political and administrative authority in Hong Kong from the then-ruling British to the communist government in mainland China" with the change of setting towards the end of the Ming Dynasty and the start of the Qing Dynasty being a similar uncertain time. In "The Icon with Early Retirement: The Films of Brigitte Lin", Travis Crawford notes that Lin was on the verge of early retirement in the early nineties, noting the types of roles that usually went to beautiful actresses in Hong Kong cinema of the period – most notably, her role in Police Story (in which she is afforded only slightly more to do than higher-billed Maggie Cheung – as well as some of the more artistically fulfilling parts during that time like Wong Kar Wai's Ashes of Time and rumors that Lin might still come out of her comfortable retirement.

Overall

While newcomers can take or leave The Bride with White Hair, it nevertheless occupies an important place in the exposure of Hong Kong action cinema to the West in the late eighties and nineties.

 


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