“This is the so-called underworld rule. You have no choice.” the hero of Ronny Yu’s gothic fairytale The Bride White Hair (白髮魔女傳) is told, only to reflect “Yes, I do.” though the world will eventually prove him wrong. Tinged with handover anxiety, the film finds its star-crossed lovers longing to exercise their choice of exile, to be allowed to live quietly outside of the political turbulence that surrounds them. But in the end their love is not strong enough to overcome their difference and doubt becomes the ultimate act of emotional betrayal.
This is a tale that signals its tragedy from its inception. The Ching emperor is deathly ill and only a flower growing on a distant mountain that blossoms only once every 20 years can save him. “This flower is not for you” the emissaries are told by man who appears to be frozen in more ways than one, relating that he has waited 10 years for a woman who may have forgotten him. As a young man, Yi-hang (Leslie Cheung) was the roguish heir to the Wu Tang clan whose recklessness sometimes caused him to behave in unorthodox ways in the name of justice. The eight clans of Chung Yuan are beset on both sides, caught between the conflict of Ching and Ming while fearful of an “Evil Cult” that otherwise destabilises their icy grip over the local area.
It’s becoming clear to Yi-hang that he may not be on the right side. The people are oppressed and starving but their attempt to procure a little sustenance for themselves leads to a bloody raid with clan soldiers cutting down peasants until a mysterious woman in white (Brigitte Lin) arrives wielding a whip that can cut people in half. Interrupted by a tragic scene while napping in the forest, Yi-hang is immediately smitten with the female assassin whom he later realises is the same girl he saw as a child who saved him from wolves with the song of her flute.
The woman is an orphan taken in by the cult and trained up as an assassin. She has only a surname, Lien, and is then symbolically “reborn” when Yi-hang gives her her name, Ni-chang. Having fallen in love, the pair vow to leave the underworld together and live in the pastoral paradise of the watering hole where they first made love. “This underworld doesn’t belong to us, let them fight for it” Yi-hang insists, attempting to exercise his choice to escape a system he sees as corrupt before it strains his integrity but as he’ll discover he’s not as much choice as he thought.
In the shadow of the Handover, it might be tempting to read Lien and Yi-hang as ordinary people who just want to live quietly and resent the intrusion of politics into their lives, though they remain caught between two opposing powers with no neutral space for them to occupy. The same could be said of the cult’s leaders, a pair of crazed conjoined twins, one male one female, who are fused at the back in a potent symbol of duality. The twins were once members of the Wu Tang clan but were betrayed and exiled, driven mad by their banishment. At the film’s conclusion, Yi-hang symbolically frees the twins by splitting them apart but their separation leads only to their deaths. In the end, Yi-hang betrays his love because the underworld does not permit it to exist. He doubts Lien’s word and his rejection of her sparks her metamorphosis into the title’s Bride with White Hair, a vengeful spirit of hurt and rage now condemned to eternal wandering just as Yi-hang is condemned to life a waiting only to watch a flower wither and die knowing that he has damned himself.
Yu’s world of melancholy romanticism is typical of that of early ‘90s wuxia though carries a touch of the gothic not least in the Bride’s cobweb-like hair which eventually becomes her finest weapon. The pervading sense of longing seems to hint at a future act of imperfect union, tinged with volatile ambivalence but perhaps finally suggesting that this romance is doomed to failure because the corruption of the world into which Yi-hang, the authority, was born is simply too great to be conquered by the innocence of his love.
The Bride with White Hair screens screens at UltraStar Cinemas Mission Valley April 23 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival Spring Showcase.
Trailer (English subtitles)