Thursday, April 9, 2015

WUXIA INSPIRATION: THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR

Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate draws on a number of sources for inspiration. I watch a lot of wuxia movies and TV shows, and these have had a big influence not only on Ogre Gate, but on Sertorius and many of my d20 campaigns. I am hoping to share some of my favorite movies and shows in the genre here as we work on WHOG.

Note: I am writing these as a fan of the genre. I am not a movie expert or an expert in asian cinema. These are my own observations based on what I have learned by watching wuxia and kung fu movies, and by reading about them through interviews and books. But my knowledge is quite limited and I am an English speaker. So understand that my commentary comes from this perspective. 

Note: This review contains many spoilers. 

(Trying a different review structure for this entry) 

Two films immediately leap to my mind when I think of Brigitte Lin: Swordsman II and The Bride with White Hair. The latter is a surreal, romantic tale of love and misunderstanding based on the wuxia novel Baifa Monu Zhuan (Romance of the White-Haired Maiden). From what I understand it is one of the looser interpretations of the source material. 

The Bride with White Hair was released in 1993 and directed by Ronny Yu (Fearless and Once Upon a Time in China) and stars Brigitte Lin (Swordsman II&III, Ashes of Time and The New Dragon Gate Inn) and Leslie Cheung (A Chinese Ghost Story, Ashes of Time and Eagle Shooting Heroes). 

This is a captivating film, with all the unusual editing, saturation and camera angles one expects from the more fantastic Hong Kong wuxia movies of the early 90s. It often described as erotic but it's erotic in the context of the kind of movie it is. This isn't Basic Instinct or Mercy, rather it is a love story with plenty of sensuality and some brief nudity but by current standards a fairly tame film. It is a bit like Ashes of Time in that one almost feels inebriated by the visuals. 

The Bride with White Hair has plenty of swordplay but that isn't what drives the film. Ultimately this is a about the ill-fated love between Lian Nichang and Zhuo Yihang. The martial world they inhabit provides the backdrop and the obstacles to their romance. Yihang as a member of the orthodox Wudang sect, and Nichang, as a member of the unorthodox Supreme Cult, are natural enemies but drawn together after several chance encounters. 
Lian Nichang (Brigitte Lin)


Still, this is wuxia at its flamboyant best. The fight scenes are dazzling and gruesome with more than a few bodies halved by Nichang's whip. By the time Nichang transforms into the white haired maiden, she is already a force of nature. Her newfound fury simply makes her more unstoppable. She trades in her whip for her own locks of hair, ensnaring foes in their white strands. Her hair lashes out like tendrils and the visual effect used to achieve it works well. 

Some find this over-the-top or even silly. I think it is genuinely appealing and enhances the dreamy atmosphere of The Bride with White Hair. The swordplay sequences themselves are good, the performances are also quite strong, though it can be hard to discern through the stylistic edits and motion effects. 
Yihang (Leslie Cheung)


The villains of the film are two conjoined twins, a brother and sister called the Chi Siblings (their name seems to vary from version to version). They lead the Supreme Cult and are a natural source of conflict when the male Chi Sibling falls in love with Nichang and is enraged by her desire to leave the cult and marry Yihang. They expel her, forcing Nichang to undergo an arduous exit ritual where she must walk on glass as the other cult members beat her with sticks. This is not a short scene and its brutality is meant illustrate the strength of her love for Yihang.

Their romance increases tension between Wudang and the Supreme Cult, culminating in a great deception where the the female Chi Sibling masquerades as Nichang and slaughters Yihang's master and fellow disciples. When Yihang confronts Nichang about the incident, he doubts her when she says she didn't do it. This ultimately leads to a feud between them and in that moment, Nichang who feels betrayed after finding love for the first time, is overcome with rage, her black hair turning white. This is where we see her use her locks to dismember some of the remaining Wudang sect disciples. 
Nichang after the transformation

In the end she and Yihang must work together to defeat the Chi Siblings. A glorious battle ensues on the heels of Nichang's massacre of wudang and it is worthy cap to the film, ending when Yihang severs the tie between the twins with a blade stroke and they bleed to death. After the battle Nichang walks off into the distance away from Yihang, seemingly still disappointed by his doubt. The story is continued in the sequel (worth watching but not as good as the first installment in my view). 


The Chi Siblings
I highly recommend The Bride with White Hair to anyone with an interest in wuxia or martial arts movies. I may be viewing it through rose-colored glasses because it was one of the first movies in the genre I ever saw, and at a time when I was soon devouring this sort of fair. So I'll be the first to admit, it is a bit hard for me to examine objectively. That said, I think it is iconic for a reason. There is a great combination of a simple story, powerful imagery, romance and blood. The fight choreography is operatic more than athletic but still impressive. 

In terms of gaming, if you are going to run a wuxia campaign this is a must see. In terms of potential for NPCs and sect conflict, this is a rich resource. It also can serve as a stark introduction to the concept of orthodox versus unorthodox sects. 

Definitely this is one of my top recommendations in the genre. 

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