Within the first ten minutes of The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom, you realize that you’re going to have to seriously recalibrate your cheese tolerance levels. An adaptation of a Chinese novel, the film quickly introduces an apparently endless parade of bearded, angry men in elaborate armour who smirk at the camera like 1950’s serial villains. The rest of the movie is devoted to a super-saccharine, vaseline-on-the-lens love story that comes with a strong whiff of Twilight.
Before I summarize the plot, I should confess that I didn’t understand most of it. The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom is a pretty well known story in China, being a smash hit novel first and having been adapted to cinema multiple times. So, Jacob Cheung’s film assumes you’re going to know who’s who before it even begins, a tactic that might save on exposition for Chinese audiences but spells bewilderment for everyone else.
So, as near as I can figure (and with the slight aid of Wikipedia), the background is a war between two rival kingdoms, the Ming and the Jin. The Jin are threatening to invade, have infiltrated the Ming court and are plotting to kill the already sick Emperor. Caught in the middle of this are the Wudang, who I think are a martial arts school. Their newly appointed head, Zhuo Liang (Huang Xiaoming), is sent on a mission to cure the Emperor’s illness with some strange red pills. Unfortunately, these kill the emperor and Liang becomes a wanted man.
He then hooks up with a society of outlaws living in seclusion on a plateau called The Lunar Kingdom, an idyllic natural fortress secluded from the rest of the world. They’re led by the mysterious leader Jade Rakshasa (Fan Bingbing), a beautiful sword twirling outlaw. When Liang first meets her, the two playfully try to stab each other to death, but soon mushily realize they’ve got the mutual hots. The plot then heads towards the various leaders trying to choose between their duty and their loves, causing all sorts of complicated dramatic stuff to go down.
“That’s all well and good, but what about the ass-kicking?” I hear you cry. As countless martial arts movies have proven, even a nigh-incomprehensible plot can be saved by the promise of balletic, acrobatic swordplay. Unfortunately, if you’re expecting something along the lines of Hero or House of Flying Daggers here, you’re liable to go home disappointed. This is disarmingly limp, bloodless fighting, rapidly edited into confusing sequences that drain away any sense of flow.
In the best wuxia films, the fights serve as a purely physical dialogue: clashes of swords and fierce body blows expertly choreographed to be as communicative as a Woody Allen scene. But here, the plot completely pauses when characters wiggle swords ineffectually, fighting with no sense of danger or impact. Watching the early fights your heart sinks as you realize that what’s to come probably won’t be much better.
So, the plot is impossible to follow and the action scenes suck. Is there any reason to check out this movie? Well, the costuming is pretty good. If you like intricate suits of armor you’ll be in hog’s heaven. Fan Bingbing’s titular witch is also certainly eye-catching. Bingbing is a preternaturally beautiful woman (though not a particularly impressive actor) and Cheung goes out of his way to accentuate that, caking her in glam-rock makeup and dressing her in impressive outfits that wouldn’t be out of place in a Lady GaGa video. Sure when she fights she looks a bit like a refugee from Soul Calibur, but at least she’s striking.
There’s a similarly sumptuous aesthetic in some (though not all) of the sets; pillars of burnished wood and gently swaying multicolored fabric make for one area of the film that equals Zhang Yimou’s filmography. There’s also some bold, stylistic CGI that places the film in a slightly heightened reality, with the camera swooping through virtual sets within which fish transform into yin/yang symbols or killer plants wind their way through veins.
That aside, there’s also a baffling number of really awful sets that wouldn’t be out of place on a children’s game show. Mysterious, forgotten caves are obviously fibreglass on top of flat concrete with a few shrubs scattered about, making some scenes look more like they were shot in an upmarket garden centre rather than in 15th century China. This might be forgiveable in a modest actioner, but this has a CNY100 million budget – where the hell has it gone?!
There’s also another way to wring some enjoyment from the film – it’s so cheesy that it’s inadvertantly funny. How else are we meant to deal with a moment where the heroine must learn the “Scroll of Apathy” to forget her love; a process that apparently involves staring into space really really hard. Similarly, the dramatic denouement is soundtracked by a hilariously out of place pop song, causing the audience to break into fits of giggles at the emotional peak of the film.
This is perhaps not the reaction that Cheung anticipated, but at least giggling isn’t booing. With the melodramatic romance and elaborate costumes, this ended up reminding me more of a Bollywood musical than a traditional kung-fu actioner. If you find ridiculously overblown cinema particularly hilarious then maybe you can get something out of The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom. But personally, I wouldn’t bother.