The people who claim that Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Rings was the first truly great fantasy movie are half right: it is a truly great fantasy movie, but it isn't the first. While one might debate the merits of The Princess Bride or even Ladyhawke, it's inarguable that Hong Kong has been making great fantasy movies for years. And The Bride With White Hair -- beautiful, heartbreaking, thrilling, sexy, and incredibly weird -- may be the best of them.
Like many Hong Kong fantasies, it's set in an ancient China that never was but should have been, a place where mastery of the martial arts conveys the ability to leap weightlessly through the air, a place where women are raised by wolves, and incestuous Siamese twin magicians command armies of twisted cultists, a place of heart-stopping beauty and bloody warfare, a place like a dream that makes you want to sleep forever.
Leslie Cheung plays a young martial artist who is rescued by, and falls in love with, a nameless "wolf girl," played by Brigitte Lin. But the path of true love cannot run smooth, since Lin is an assassin in thrall to a pair of villains who are bizarre even by Hong Kong movie standards. Still, Lin and Cheung forge a secret romance in the grand fairy tale tradition of doomed matches between people from different worlds.
Like the selkie who makes her fisherman husband promise never to hunt a seal, or Psyche's vow to never look upon her husband's face, the wolf girl makes Cheung promise never to doubt her word. It's a vow we know he's bound to break. And so the stage is set for a sequence of magical and martial duels, brutal torture sequences and exquisitely sensual love scenes, and a final battle that will set your blood racing even as it breaks your heart.
The performances are larger than life and unashamedly emotional: a perfect match for the operatic story line. The kinky twins, Frances Ng and Elaine Lui, are alternately funny and frightening, yet with an underlying sense of the strange tragedy of their joined lives. Cheung is sexy and heroic, and Lin's performance is a masterpiece of sensuality, pathos, and ferocity, with a glare to send strong men running for their lives.
The cinematography and staging create sequences as gorgeous as any seen on screen. A young swordsman practicing at sunset and lovers meeting in a forest pool are only a few of the scenes that most directors would sell their first-born to have shot. And if the ending doesn't make you cry, either your eyes or your heart need a check-up.
So if you've read too many processed fantasy novels replete with apostrophes, and your sense of wonder need replenishing... if your heart's been stomped on once too often, and you want to reawaken your romantic side (or if you've seen Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon so often that your friends have started calling you "Invincible Sword Goddess"), ring up your local video/DVD bootlegger and order The Bride With White Hair... and a box of tissues on the side.
The Bride With White Hair is available in subtitled DVD and VHS editions from the US-based distributor Tai Seng Video and can be ordered from them or from Amazon. It can be found in many Chinatown DVD stores in L.A., San Francisco and NY for less money, although the import version is inferior to Tai Seng's domestic version (the import has the theatrical subs and a a mediocre transfer). The Tai Seng edition can also be found at Borders, Suncoast and similar outlets. Tai Seng also offers dubbed versions of the VHS tapes and there is an English track on their DVDs as well as the Cantonese one. The dubbed version plays on cable TV from time to time.