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White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom, The

Original title: Báifà mónǚ zhuàn zhī míngyuè tiānguó

D: Jacob Cheung Chi-Leung / 104m

Cast: Fan Bingbing, Huang Xiaoming, Vincent Zhao, Wang Xuebing, Ni Dahong, Tong Yao, Shera Lee, Cecilia Yip, Yan Yikuan

China, 1620. The Ming dynasty is drawing to a close and corruption is rife in the Imperial Palace. Zhuo Yihang (Xiaoming) is appointed leader of the Wudang clan and travels to the Imperial Palace to pay tribute to the Emperor and present him with two red pills as a sign of his fealty. On his way, he discovers a cave where he encounters a mysterious young woman without a name (Bingbing). He tells her that when next they meet he will have a name for her. At the same time, the Chuan-Shan army, led by General Jin (Zhao) are busy suppressing the peasants, most of whom are starving. When the Emperor dies, supposedly poisoned by the red pills, his heir is too young to rule, leaving his chief advisor, Wei Zhongxian (Dahong) in control.

Following the new Emperor’s coronation, a team of specially trained soldiers called the Secret Squad are sent to capture a notorious bandit called Jade Raksasha (Bingbing) who, with her gang, is based at a hilltop fortress called Fort Luna. The fortress is also the target of Huang Taiji (Yikuan) who knows its strategic importance; he needs to capture it before he can march on the Palace. At Chuan-Shan the Governor discovers that several dozen of his people have died from typhoid. Jade and her sister, Coral (Lee) attack the Governor (who also happens to be Yihang’s grandfather) and warn him not to continuing oppressing his people, but in the meleé, Jin takes adsvnatage of the situation and kills him, blaming it on Jade. Coral is captured though Jade rescues her with the help of Yihang. At Fort Luna, the typhoid takes hold but Yihang finds a cure. He also realises that Jade is the young woman he met in the cave;  true to his word he gives her a name: Lian Nishang (Silk Fairy).

With the aid of three masters from the Wudang clan, the Secret Squad infiltrate Fort Luna and demand Yihang returns with them to face charges of poisoning the previous Emperor. To avoid unnecessary bloodshed he agrees but not before he’s promised Lian that he’ll return one day, and that she need have no fear because she is his woman. At the Palace, Yihang is persuaded to help Zhongxian by taking the head of a rebel leader to his army as an example of what will happen if they side with Jin. The Wudang masters are outraged and refuse to acknowledge him any more. Word reaches Lian of what Yihang is doing, and that when he returns to the Palace he is to marry Zhongxian’s daughter Tingting (Yao). She goes to the Palace and confronts him but Yihang rebuffs her. The Palace guards try to capture her while she deals with the shock of Yihang’s betrayal and her hair turns white, but Tingting intervenes and she and Yihang are allowed to leave.

When they return to Fort Luna, Lian’s illness is such that she needs a special remedy from the Infernal Cave; Yihang makes the attempt to get it. He proves successful, but with Huang Taiji’s army fast approaching, a deal is made with General Jin’s forces, without anyone realising that Jin has already made a deal with Taiji and is set to betray them.

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The fourth big screen adaptation for Liang Yusheng’s wuxia novel, Baifa Monü Zhuan – the previous three are Story of the White-haired Demon Girl (1959), White Hair Devil Lady (1980), and The Bride With White Hair (1993) – The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom is a flat, mostly perfunctory retelling of the classic story, and a movie that struggles to make its central romance as compelling as it should be. Partly, the problem is that Bingbing and Xiaoming, while obviously a lovely couple, lack the kind of chemistry that would make their characters’ passion for each other so believable. As it is, they circle round each other like predators rather than ardent lovers, and their initial meeting in the cave appears redundant when placed next to Lian’s usual daily routine of rescuing abused peasants and beating up Chuan-Shan soldiers.

The convoluted politics of the time are another barrier to the average viewer’s enjoyment of the movie, with alliances and political bartering leading to various changes of allegiance and casually arranged alliances. It’s not a complicated set up, but it does feel forced at times, as if the makers felt they needed to add several twists and turns to keep things fresh (Yihang’s betrothal to Tingting is one such “twist”, and one that makes no sense at all). The fact that five screenwriters worked on the script isn’t exactly a good sign, and once the basic premise is set up, the movie’s middle section slows things down interminably as all the various elements are either sidelined in favour of the aforementioned underwhelming romance or are played out at a pace that promotes an unfortunate ennui in the viewer.

With the plot and storylines proving so dreary and lacklustre, Chi-Leung is unable to boost things to a level where continued interest is guaranteed, or the performances rise above the bland or uninspired level they operate at throughout. Bingbing and Xiaoming’s lack of chemistry aside, they deliver portrayals that lack consistency and depth, while Zhao as the villainous Jin is more of a double-dealing bureaucrat than a brutal general, and can’t even manage a decent condescending sneer when needed. Of the rest of the cast, perhaps the best performance comes from Yao as Tingting; she plays the part with just the right combination of apparent fragility and heartbreaking misfortune.

As for the action scenes they’re effectively choreographed, but rely too much on CGI and old-fashioned wire work to be truly spectacular. Some Western viewers may be upset by the treatment that a number of horses are subjected to in these scenes, and there are moments where the movie is unexpectedly gory (though there’s nothing that’s too disturbing). With the usual amount of panoramic vistas and sweeping camerawork mixed in with appropriately dust-blown peasant holdings, the look of the movie benefits from Lin Guohua’s often exquisite photography, and the overall recreation of 17th Century China is one of the few areas where the movie, thankfully, gets it right.

Rating: 5/10 – irritating and humdrum, The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom is a movie where only “just enough” is done to keep the audience interested; somewhere between well-mounted and tedious, it aims for epic but achieves only a fraction of that, and never feels like it’s going to amount to much more than being an also-ran in the history of wuxia movies.

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