Hell Hath No Fury Like THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR (1993)
Directed by: Ronny Yu
A 1993 Hong Kong film, “The Bride with White Hair” is in Cantonese with English subtitles available. Produced by Mandarin Films Distribution Co, it runs 89 minutes, in color, with Dolby sound. It has a sequel, “The Bride with White Hair 2,” which was released the following year.
This movie is a classic in the Hong Kong romantic supernatural genre. It also includes elements of the Chinese historical epic and kung fu genres. The central characters are both orphans who find themselves on opposite sides of a war to control the (supernatural) Underworld in the era of the secular Ming dynasty.
Lien Ni-Chang (Lin), the “wolf girl,” is adept at sorcery and kung fu. Adopted away from the wolf pack that raised her, she becomes the chief bodyguard of Ji Wushuang, the ruler of an evil cult, who is actually a pair of Siamese twins. When Ni-Chang grows from girl to woman, the male Wushuang (Ng) develops an insatiable desire for her, for which he is mocked mercilessly by his sister (Elaine Lui). Ni-Chang has no interest in him. Moreover, she is happier with the wolves than with the cult, to which she is bound by Wushuang’s power.
Zhuo Yi-Hang (Cheung), of Wu-Tang, one of eight “orthodox” clans of the Underworld, has been hand-picked by its leader (and his teacher) as his successor. Yi-Hang is a master swordsman and adept at kung fu. However, he was a mischievous, although brilliant, pupil who does not always listen to his teacher. As a young man, he has a mind of his own, which causes him to be ambivalent about taking over the leadership role in the Wu-Tang clan.
First Act: Situation
Although they belong to Underworld factions that are sworn enemies, the two orphans are destined from their first childhood meeting (in which Ni-Chang saves Yi-Hang from wolves) to be lovers. They are both “kind-hearted” underneath their warrior personas. At their second meeting, they fight together against the forces of the ruling secular power, the Ming dynasty, when its soldiers attempt to exterminate unarmed, starving peasants who have stolen some of the Emperor’s food provisions.
Second Act: Complications
Ji Wushuang declares war on the eight “orthodox” clans; Ni-Chang is ordered to lead the assault. Yi-Hang is selected to lead the fight against the cult, but is ambivalent about it. In combat, he encounters Ni-Chang, who tells him she must kill him despite their previous experience together. Yi-Hang drops his weapon and submits himself voluntarily to death, but Nichang spares him. Unfortunately, this scene is witnessed by Yi-Hang’s “sister” from Wu-Tang, Ho Lu Hua (Kit Ying Lam), who has long had a crush on him, but also has been competing against him to be the successor to their clan’s chief. She wounds Ni-Chang with a poisoned dart. When Yi-Hang scoops up Ni-Chang and flees, Lu Hua leaves to report him to the clan leadership.
After Yi-Hang removes the dart and the poison from Ni-Chang’s shoulder, she recognizes that he is the boy that she saved from the wolves when they were both children. They recognize and consummate their mutual attraction.
Afterwards, Yi-Hang gives Ni-Chang a personal name (previously she had only her family name of Lien). Ni-Chang tells Yi-Hang that he will not love her anymore when she is old and white-haired. He tells her that he knows of a flower whose elixir can restore youth; if her hair turns white, he will retrieve this flower and cure her. She also confides that she hates mistrust and asks him never to disbelieve her, whereupon he swears “under Heaven” to be “condemned” if he ever betrays her.
Together they decide to leave the Underworld. Yi-Hang has already been expelled from Wu-Tang, but the situation is much more complicated and dangerous for Ni-Chang. The price for leaving the cult is to submit to the male Ji Wushuang’s lust. She agrees, but Ji’s twin sister detects that Ni-Chang has been with another man. As a result, Ni-Chang is “jumped out” of the cult.
Meanwhile, in the secular world, Yi-Hang’s ambitious warrior friend, General Wu San-Kuei (Eddy Ko), betrays the Ming dynasty to the forces of the rival Ching kingdom. Representatives of Wu-Tang locate Yi-Hang and beg him to assist them in supporting the Ming dynasty against insurrection. He refuses, but agrees to accompany them back to the Wu-Tang temple to explain his refusal to the Chief, his former master.
Third Act: Conclusion
When Yi-Hang and his Wu-Tang escorts return to the temple, they find that it has been sacked. Everyone there, including the Chief, has been killed — except one, who tells Yi-Hang that Ni-Chang is responsible. At first, he refuses to believe this report. Wearing a traditional red wedding dress, Ni-Chang then arrives at the temple to join him. She is confronted by the remaining Wu-Tang, who attack her. Initially, she fights from a defensive posture, wounding instead of killing. Yi-Hang asks her point-blank whether she is responsible for the killings. Her reply to this question and Yi-Hang’s response leads to the high action of this film’s conclusion. A hint: there is no white wedding dress in Chinese culture, in which white is the color of death and funerals.
From a Western perspective, the “Bride with White Hair” story follows the Romeo and Juliet template on a superficial level. Its major characters are two “star-crossed lovers” who are dogged by the tension between their “families.” Beyond its basic plot type, however, the movie significantly diverges from the story line of Shakespeare’s play. The two lovers are members of a supernatural “Underworld” and therefore possess otherworldly powers. They are not destroyed by their love. Most significantly, the female of the pair does not commit suicide over the loss of her lover.
On the contrary, Ni-Chang is the stronger of the two. She, not he (who is more like Hamlet than Romeo), is the one with absolute integrity, despite the fact that she comes from the “evil” cult. It is she who teaches Yi-Hang the meaning of trust and fidelity. This education is a very painful one. The contrast between the passion of the scene in which the two consummate their love and the violence of the film’s final scene is stark. The latter is an epic battle that includes Ni-Chang, Yi-Hang, and the two Ji Wushuang twins. At its conclusion, Yi-Hang is not off the hook, morally speaking, which sets up the sequel to follow.
“The Bride with White Hair” is an action-packed, epic, supernatural romance that will appeal to those who enjoy several different film genres. It is also a classic of Hong Kong cinema. It showcases a very strong female lead character, portrayed by an excellent actress. Check out the trailer below to get a taste of the film. Stills from the movie can be viewed via director Ronny Yu’s Flickr page.