Wednesday 22 October 2014

The White Haired Witch Of Lunar Kingdom

A Witch In Time

The White Haired Witch Of Lunar Kingdom
2014  China
Directed by Zhang Zhiliang
Seen as part of the London Film Festival 
on Sunday 19th October 2014

I kinda knew, somewhere in the back of my head, that The White Haired Witch Of Lunar Kingdom was not the only film dealing with this character before I booked my ticket to see this at the London Film Festival... I remember seeing the old Tartan DVDs (now quite scarce) on the shelves for titles like The Bride With White Hair. In fact, this story has been adapted for the screen many times over the years since its first publication as a serialised novel, Baifa Mon├╝ Zhuan by Liang Yusheng, between August 1957 and December 1958.

I still wanted to see this one, though, because it looked like it was going to be really colourful and, since I’ve not seen any of the previous attempts at turning this into a movie or TV show, I at least wouldn’t have anything to compare it to in a negative light. I have to say, I think I made the right choice with this one because, if nothing else, this is probably one of the most spectacular films to be screened at the LFF this year and, in the words of one of the organisers, “not like anything else we’ve got playing here”.

I get the idea from what I’ve read of a basic synopsis of the novel that, clearly, some liberties were taken with the overall story but, quite honestly, I’m not too worried about it with this particular work as I suspect it’s been treated quite differently, in terms of details, in all of the on-screen incarnations that it’s had. I’ve no real way of telling you if it’s in any way a good adaptation of the original source novel, either in accuracy or in spirit, so please bear that in mind when you read this.

The film is amazingly put together, right from the start, with a blisteringly beautiful opening title sequence which has a lot going on in it. I’ll jump back to a certain aspect of that opening towards the end of this review but, after this sequence is played out, the style of the camera work very much favours the long, slow camera pan and the wide reveal... with the editing between shots at a minimum. It’s visual pacing may be leisurely but, it has to be said, it moves pretty fast. There’s an awful lot of ground being covered in this movie and, considering the film is only an hour and three quarters in length, the director has managed to pack an amazing amount of story into it. Someone like Peter Jackson would probably have filmed it as nine hours and released it as three separate movies.

If you’ve not seen a lot of these kinds of Chinese martial arts films, the modern examples of films of this nature being such gems as Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, then you will probably need to get used to the fact that a lot of the characters in this have honed their skills so that they can jump and leap about at great heights and, as in this one, bounce back off of the surface of water by merely touching it with a sword in the right way (a tactic the main male protagonist Zhuo, played by Xiaoming Huang, uses to retrieve a veil he has knocked off of the main female protagonist and title character). If you are still trying to get used to that kind of stuff after a few minutes of the film then this may not be your thing but, if anything, this film did remind me of those old Shaw Brothers films of the 50s, 60s and 70s... where such leaps from reality are quite normal.

What especially made me think of that direct lineage from the Shaw Brothers to this movie is found in the style used to introduce characters... by putting little captions up by the side of them throughout the movie every time a new character was introduced. The Shaw Brothers did a similar thing in their film The Water Margin (later made into a famous Japanese TV series, which was one of the few to penetrate the West via BBC broadcasts in the 1970s and 1980s). I seem to remember the actors and actresses playing the roles were also flashed up in relation to their characters as you went through the movie, something which The White Haired Witch Of Lunar Kingdom stops short at when it comes to the performers behind the characters.

The colours, as I expected, are absolutely spectacular and often very bright, as you would associate with some of the examples of the wuxia genre in more recent years. It's a very controlled use of colour and the director does have certain palette sets into which hues from other kinds of scenes rarely intrude or bleed into (apart from in the incredible juxtaposition of colours in one specific scene, that is, which I won’t spoil for you by elaborating on here). Overall, the film looks truly beautiful, even in its more frosty colour sets, which also complement the “White Haired Witch”, played beautifully by Bingbing Fan (who played Blink in X-Men Days Of Future Past and also appeared in the Chinese version of Iron Man 3), when she actually does reach the point where her hair turns white.

The story is incredibly convoluted and, every time you think you’re coming to some kind of closure or end game, a new part of the adventure starts. It’s almost like we’ve got three or four stories in one, with running characters, in the space of what is a very limited running time. The film, I’ll grant you, does have an episodic quality to it in certain places, but for all its jumps and slight narrative gaps, it all supports the central character arc and fits together beautifully as a single follow through in the end.

Asides from strong cinematography, some amazing performances from the various leads and a beautiful score (which I suspect I might have trouble getting hold of at the moment)... the film also has some stunning fight choreography which doesn’t suffer, like many Western made action movies these days, from an overabundance of cuts. The first meeting/fight between the male hero and the title heroine, takes place in a little cove on rocks in water and the ways it’s done is just beautiful It’s not about two people fighting, it’s about two people getting to know each other’s limits and introduce themselves... if anything, in fact, the whole fight reminded me of two lovers trading caresses for the first time. This fight isn’t about injury or about death, it’s a courting ritual and it’s very much like a conversation two people might have as they try to get in touch with how they feel about the person opposite them. It’s a great sequence and it made me realise there was more to the director, Zhang Zhiliang, than at first meets the eye...

And meet my eye he did because the director was present for the screening, with his translator, and had some interesting things to say.

One thing he did make a point of saying was that the story very much follows a Taoist philosophy, with the path of life being guided by dark and light. This manifests itself very early on in the film, in fact, in that opening title sequence I mentioned. One of the things that happens in this sequence is that two fighting fish spin around and come together and are morphed into the Taoist symbol of ying and yang... so that’s a very quick way of the director giving us a visual pointer right there. However, the director then went on to say that the reason why this particular story appealed to him, in contrast to a lot of the wuxia in the history of the genre, is precisely because the heroes and villains in this one are not approaching their path through a specific ying/yang philosophy... they are seeing and reacting to things in shades of grey and he finds this much more reflective of real life as we experience it these days, with all the governments and corporations, and even individuals, acting in a very “shades of grey”manner, where it’s hard to distinguish the villains from the heroes and vice versa. This is what attracted this director to the characters in this specific story.

Now, as a comment on that, I’d have to say that, contrary to that statement in one way, there clearly are very much honourable heroes and despicable villains in this piece and they are extremely clear cut. However, that being said... and in direct correlation with what Zhang Zhiliang said in the Q and A, you do have passages of the film when the villains have sympathetic moments and there is, very much, a period in this story where the main male protagonist seems to switch allegiances and makes a choice which leads him away from the path of light... although, as you’ll see if you get an opportunity to see this one, there are reasons why he does this. Sometimes you have to make a decision to come down on the wrong side to achieve a position where the overall stakes can be turned to a greater good.

Shades of grey can be hard to read, sometimes, but what isn’t hard to comprehend is that The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom is an amazing and gob-smacking movie full of spectacle and excitement. My only real problem with it was right at the end in the final moments of the movie. A closure, of some sort, is visited on the main protagonists but, when that closure comes (and I’m so not saying what kind of denouement this film has, it’s got a great ending) the film makers have seen fit to add a horrendously cheesy sounding Chinese pop ballad over the top of it... I could really have done without that after a near perfect movie.

Now, I’m really not sure if this film is going to get any kind of release in either the US or the UK. I know that the director has prepped a 3D conversion of it and that he sought advice on how to shoot it to best effect to allow for that, so maybe the combination of 3D and spectacle may be enough to garner it a release for Western audiences. I hope so as I would love to see this again and would desperately like a Blu Ray transfer of the movie. That being said, there’s a scene where a wooden bridge is destroyed which results in two horse falls so I’m guessing that, even if a release is planned in the UK, the BBFC won’t let it through uncut (they don’t allow horse falls). So it’ll be interesting to see if this movie gets any kind of release over here in the near future. It certainly deserves one because it’s a fantastic movie, a wonderful character piece (as well as an action piece) and it’s a work of art that deserves a big marketing push when the time comes. Outstanding movie... don’t miss it if you get the chance to take a look.

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