Jacob Cheung's new retelling of Liang Yusheng's bestselling novel makes a royal mess of its source material as well as bearing little resemblance to Ronny Yu's much-loved 1993 adaptation. Conflicted over whether to favour action, intrigue or romance, the film fails to strike a consistent tone, while its two leads offer little chemistry to steam up the screen.
While Liang Yusheng's 1950s wuxia novel The Bride With White Hair has been adapted numerous times for both the big and small screens, the most familiar version for most film fans is most likely Ronny Yu's 1993 adaptation, starring Brigitte Lin and Leslie Cheung. Arguably one of the least faithful to its original source, Yu dispensed with much of the larger story to focus on the doomed relationship between star-crossed lovers Zhuo Yihang and Lian Nichang, but thanks to its melancholic mystical tone and stellar cast, it remains the most popular cinematic incarnation of the tale.
To Cheung's credit, his new version does return to the original source material and restore a great deal of the political intrigue and clan warfare that Yu largely ignored, only to veer off in new, unsatisfying directions of its own as the film unfolds. In fact it is the film's ambition to include as much as possible that is largely responsible for its short-comings, as too many characters and plot lines vie for screen time, only to be lost in the mix, confuse the central narrative or be forgotten about entirely. Even the film's action sequences lack the energy or imagination of classic wuxia swordplay.
Zhuo Yihang (Huang Xiaoming), heir to the Yudang clan, is tasked with delivering a consignment of "red pills" to the Emperor, only for them to prove poisonous and kill the sovereign leader. While an exceptionally young successor is put into place, chief eunuch Wei Zhongxian (Ni Dahong) begins executing his own power plays in the young emperor's name, as he repositions himself to gain maximum control of the kingdom.
Different warring clans zero in on the remote mountain stronghold of Fort Luna, but during the battle Jin clan leader Jin Duyi (Vincent Zhao) betrays and murders the Yudang chief - Zhuo's grandfather - while pointing the finger of blame at Luna's female warrior leader, the "Jade Rackshasa". Zhuo then comes across a mysterious woman hiding out in a remote cave, and is instantly bewitched by her beauty. When she claims to have no name, Zhuo vows to give her one. She is in fact Lian Nichang, the Jade Rackshasa (Fan Bingbing).
After that, the story becomes increasingly complicated, as Zhuo pledges his undying love to Lian, clears his name of the red pill allegations, and is betrothed to Eunuch Wei's daughter Ping Ping (Tong Yao). Meanwhile, Jin Duyi continues to deceive everyone as he conspires to take control Fort Luna for himself, and Lian accuses Zhuo of betraying her, which causes her to transform into the titular demoness, whose magical powers may lead to everyone's destruction as her emotional disposition becomes increasingly unstable.
With so many characters, double-crossings and fluctuating motivations in play, the film spirals into incoherence. It's no wonder Ronny Yu dispensed with so much of the inter-clan feuding for his screen version, as it all detracts from the central emotional conflict within Lian Nichang. In Cheung's version, the painful on again, off again romance between Zhuo and Lian becomes just another piece of his wide-reaching story, with Lian's transformation relegated to the result of cold rejection, rather than a tragic misunderstanding.
We never believe the romance at the heart of The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom, which should play out like a Chinese version of Romeo and Juliet, with tragedy compounding on tragedy as two devoted individuals are kept apart by circumstance and confusion. The interactions between Fan Bingbing and Huang Xiaoming are utterly, bafflingly devoid of any chemistry, warmth or spark. The most romantic moment in the film, in fact, is when a duty-bound Zhuo steps between Ping Ping and Lian's blade, thus protecting a woman for whom he supposedly feels nothing at all. We are never invested in their relationship, never emotionally rooting for them to be together, and as a result, unmoved by the events that conspire to keep Zhuo and Lian apart. If anything, our sympathies lie with Ping Ping, the innocent victim and pawn in the proceedings, traded between the men in her life with no say whatsoever in her own fate.
Elsewhere, the production values often let down an expensive film that above all else should have been lavish and visually exhilarating. Despite the assistance of Tsui Hark, on board as artistic consultant, Cheung is unable to recapture any of the visual zing he brought to his earlier period epic, A Battle of Wits. Much of the action and drama is relegated to profoundly cheap-looking sets, while the location work is rushed and filmed anonymously. The film's final climactic moment is executed with such atrocious green screen work that it renders a supposedly cathartic and celebratory romantic gesture almost laughable.
Fan Bingbing was seemingly born to play Lian Nichang, and was very much the anchor around which the entire project had been marketed, but her performance is tragically inert and soulless. Huang Xiaoming is equally disappointing, bringing zero charisma or charm to Zhuo Yihang and giving audiences nothing to like about his supposedly tortured, conflicted hero. Likewise, Vincent Zhao, whose Jin Duyi emerges as the most villainous of the film's numerous conspiratorial characters, has little opportunity to show off his talents, and becomes lost in the mix.
A story ripe to be retold for modern audiences, Jacob Cheung's The White Haired Witch Of Lunar Kingdom arrives as an overcrowded, convoluted disaster, incapable of telling its story coherently or capitalising on the talents of its central performers. In its efforts to widen the scope and bring an epic dimension to the story, the film loses all focus of what made it attractive in the first place. Quite where the film's CNY100 million budget went is anyone's guess, as the final product feels cheap, hokey and devoid of any sense of magic or romance.