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 (Vietnamese name: MINH NGUYET THIEN QUOC) sees director Jacob Cheung.
Fan Bingbing stars as the titular character in yet another adaptation of Liang Yusheng’s classic Chinese fantasy novel.
Whose acclaim lies with delicate human dramas such as Cageman and Intimates — dyes his adaptation of Liang Yusheng’s wuxia novel. That with a multiple-hue 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.
Packe into the comparatively short span of just over 100 minutes. All the changes in scenery, characters and tone only settle into one big overstuffe spectacle. Those well-verse with the original story (or the many film and TV adaptations of that have surface. That in Hong Kong and China during the past four decades) would find the film brimming with underdevelop personalities and ideas. While unfamiliar with the source material or the historical context of China at the tail-end of the Ming Dynasty. That would find it a challenge to catch up and engage emotionally with the proceedings.
It’s a shame that Cheung’s first film in seven years is eventually weigh down by this rush, uneven sprawl of a story credite to five screenwriters.
That each of whom possibly bringing their own references. That ranging from political-parable historical dramas like last year’s Life of Ming, to the contemporary dramas like Infernal Affairs. 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 move — that is. The trouble (and sloppily present) romance involving the titular character (play by the porcelain-skin 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). The rare glimpses of Stephen Tung’s ever-bankable action choreography in the frustratingly truncate 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. That 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 strive 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 reduce 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 dress up with a proper historical context. That with its characters force to choose sides in one of the most tumultuous times in Chinese history.
The one who gets hit with these contradictions the hardest is Zhuo Yihang (Huang Xiaoming). As he is force to first trade in his free-spirite 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. That as an official commission to quell dissent in the military ranks and home (by marrying his god-daughter). Meanwhile, even the villains are allow to struggle with their conscience, as power-grabbing politicians (like Wei, play by Yi Dahong). Cynical army captains (Wang Xuebing’s Murong Chong) and double-dealing baddies (Vincent Chao’s Jin Duyi) are reveal 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.
That as fights, rows or betrayals are quickly resolve so that the story could be shuttl forward. And all this save time and bandwidth is basically waste 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-fate lovers is thinly-sketch and fill with cliches. That 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 magnify by the relentless pace in which threads are thrown up and them quickly settle and discard.
Venue: Press screening, Hong Kong, July 21, 2014