No one can accuse Jacob Cheung of playing it safe with The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom. This latest adaptation of Liang Yusheng’s wuxia novel, Baifa Monü Zhuan, comes hurtling out the blocks before charging straight off into the wilderness as a confusing array of sub-plots and background information crash headfirst into clunking dialogue, corny romance and frenetic visuals. It’s a shambolic mess with enough charm to keep it watchable.
The pace is thunderously fast from the off. Whipping through the secrets of the Lunar Kingdom, the pride of the Wudang, an assassinated emperor, a threatened invasion, the mistreatment of the poor, bizarre courting scenes, several battles, a plague and herbal medicine to name just a few of the elements that stumble onto screen, it’s almost impossible to keep up. With explanatory text zipping by faster than the human eye can read, confusion sets in early. Cheung just about brings it together but the damage is done, the story moving so fast it’s failed to establish a connection with any individual character. The closest we get is striking hero Zhuo Yihang (Huang Xiaoming) and his efforts to save the kingdom and win the heart of the enigmatic Lian Nishang (Fan Bingbing), the titular witch.
At least the fights are hectic enough to divert attention. Speeded up and accompanied by constant cuts, combatants fly across the screen clashing swords, limbs and projectiles. The choreography is slick if uninspiring, while flashes of blood appear in otherwise balletic sequences. When they aren’t going at twice the speed, Cheung employs slow motion. This occurs so often it’s hard to remember the pace people normally move at. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. With so little invested in plot or characters, even the fights eventually begin to grate.
Where Cheung and screenwriters Kang Qiao and Wang Bing really slip up is the love story. It’s hard to tell if they meant to make it so utterly idiotic or just got it wrong. It’s also hard to tell which would be worse. Two particular highlights involve Nishang labelling love the deadliest poison and Yihang setting out just how it will be now she is his woman. As they stumble through clichés, The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom has one final treat in store. The film’s climax, complete with garish colours, slow motion and an awful love song would make even the corniest romantic reach for the sick bucket.
For all its faults, Cheung has certainly created a unique experience, his film dancing determinedly to its own tune. Unfortunately, it’s less the beat of the maverick outsider and more that of the weird kid at the disco everyone keeps well clear of.