Whether it’s Wang Cong’er taking up her righteous sword against the Qing Dynasty or Ching Shih living the freest possible life yet expressed, rebellion lies at these restless hearts. Where there is war, there are warriors, and where there are warriors, there are warrior women. It’s really that simple, and so I think it’s only right how we’ve gone to great lengths, by way of mythology and science both, to complicate it. Selective history is exactly that — it is conscious. Before I raise hell about all the Chinese warrior women omitted from my American public school education, what about all the important American women of history I only learned about later and at random? Why were they excluded? Did the people who made the choice to exclude even know about them? Were they excluded for them too, and then, who was the original excluder? By George, this goes all the way to the top, or at least, to some rather unpleasant gentleman.
And so, we’ve arrived at a moment in time, right now, this just one of many, where a small part of us believes that all genders are not equal, and especially that women are lesser than men. And that small part runs the show, no doubt a product of that education. Men are builders, hunters, warriors, and women are domestic. As base as that sounds, I believe it still influences the way we see the world and each other. The moment a woman can’t do something a man can do — like lead an army or cut someone’s head off — our imagination, previously limp, roars to life with the invention of the next that a woman can’t do, and the next and the next until we don’t have to put up a “keep out” sign, she’ll have left the lobby. And I don’t need to tell you there is great profit in that segregation. The warrior woman becomes, then, a powerful counterargument to the very premise of sexism. That’s why she’s important to me, as messy a counterargument she may represent, what with the blood on the deck and the burning towns.
That’s the next complication, isn’t it, if we’re compounding them. Well, rebellion is political. I can abstract the victims of Wang Cong’er’s military conquest as the “Qing Dynasty,” but war is not so clean. A warrior woman will by function oppose someone, so they become hero and villain in equal measure. Again, it’s just a matter of who’s writing history. Did you know that when Disney’s Mulan came out, Mongolian people criticized that dehumanized depiction of the Huns? Shall I recount my reaction to that or can I spare myself the embarrassment? I didn’t even know there were Mongolians, at least, none with an ancestry suggested by such a complaint — and that is one of those private moments of dumbfuckery you don’t say out loud. My apologies, Mongolians, but when I close my eyes and picture your country, I just see a desert where, you know, friggin’ Dr. Alan Grant is digging up velociraptors. They did not write “the history,” as it reached me, though at this point, I think I’d do better than to externalize that blame. And for the rest of us, maybe it’s prudent to redefine “warrior woman,” if “warrior” is the sticky component. How do we achieve the counterargument without creating a monster? We factor in that woman’s politics. What is she fighting for? Who is she fighting against, and so on. As a matter of fact, the theme for today might very well be good versus evil, as we start our survey into fiction with heroism as pure as the falling snow before braving the hell of witches and demons.
Come Drink With Me (1966)
So, Golden Swallow — Golden Swallow? That’s right. I’m not up on my Chinese literature, so I can’t relate to you the stories of all the actual female characters what might be appropriate here, but I have seen movies, and sometimes movies about movies as we’ll see. Golden Swallow is a character who originated in film, specifically the film Come Drink With Me, directed by King Hu and starring Cheng Pei-pei. There was a Netflix documentary released last year called Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks, and one of the interesting points raised was that early kung fu movies actually featured women as the lead characters because at the time, movies were women’s things. They had a “keep in” sign. It wasn’t until the emergence of Chang Cheh that we began to see the shirtless heroic bloodshed aspect of martial heroism, the themes of brotherhood and honor. With that kernel of an idea, I can’t help but draw a binary specifically between Chang Cheh and his contemporary King Hu. First of all, both were directors for the Shaw Brothers, but while Chang Cheh remained a flagship collaborator on dozens of their films, King Hu split off to make his own movies in 1966.
And I think, after having just seen two of King Hu’s movies, I’m gonna call him one of my favorite directors. “But that’s crazy.” I know. But he directed A Touch of Zen. Now don’t you look foolish. I’m not gonna say that the earlier Come Drink With Me is as good as A Touch of Zen, but now having seen it, I’m getting a better sense for his filmmaking. Like with Sergio Leone, the camera moves deliberately and carefully, and always tracking along a sequence of compositions. And again, like the great Italian director, his depiction of violence is tuned so differently than what we’re used to in the genre. It’s all about the moment before, the great building tension in anticipation of the strike — in this way, the direct contrast to the staccato Yuen Woo-ping approach. Or for a more severe comparison, let’s flash back to The Swordswoman in White — as it is. In this movie, there is zero buildup, just sudden action. And so when we cut to this wide shot, I’m like, “Yeah, that’s kind of how I’m feeling.” The careful directorial hand of Hu instills the action scene with emotion. Not only is there something melancholic around the edges of these mobile compositions, we’re engaged in the moment and then experience this great release with the fighting. The martial arts here is more dancelike and fantastical than expressed by the physical reality of Lau Kar-Leung, partly owing to Cheng Pei-pei’s background as a dancer. This is the telling of a legend on film, and it carries a mythic weight. Characters have these unspoken histories, and the simplicity of the narrative suggests a fable.
Keeping us grounded, then, are the performances of the cast, especially the anchor in Cheng Pei-pei, who was in this film as old as Zhang Ziyi was in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The tension of these fight scenes hinges on her performance. It’s the expressiveness of her face, ever in reaction to her surroundings where she’s constantly outnumbered. I’ve spoken a lot more about formal elements like direction and cinematography than I’m used to, but I think they’re central to the kung fu genre, and part of the integrity of a woman warrior in film is how she’s portrayed. Cheng Pei-pei has a great screen presence, and King Hu views her, in my opinion, with respect. There’s a delicate balance between the legendary aspect of the character who feels so confident, and the vulnerability often required of protagonists as they enter act two. She’s never too weak, and believe me I was watching out for it. King Hu and Cheng Pei-pei make a great team, so it’s unfortunate they never collaborated again, though King Hu would go on to find his muse in Hsu Feng, another kung fu badass whose looks could kill.
Golden Swallow (1968)
Toward the end of Come Drink With Me, the focus of the story begins to drift away from Golden Swallow, culminating in this Jedi wizard battle. But that’s okay, and the reason why it’s okay is also why I consider Golden Swallow to be a folkloric character. She will strike again in 1968’s Golden Swallow, providing her another opportunity, now chance, to be awesome. Unfortunately, this one is directed by Chang Cheh. So, how does the character and the actress fare under this masculine, more technical director? Well, there is technique to go along with the new practicality — we see in multiple instances that Golden Swallow is simply faster than her opponents. She uses the short swords, and her strikes are fractions of what her opponents telegraph. So as you see, in keeping with our Sergio Leone reference, this one plays a bit like a samurai movie, though there’s a greater variety of weapons than the mere katana.
I find this acceptable, maybe even more than acceptable. However — and there’s always a however — two qualifications. For one, as expected, Chang Cheh is simply not interested in the title character. The original film’s dueling protagonism is now a battle of muses, as Cheng Pei-pei competes for the director’s attention with Jimmy Wang Yu, star of Chang Cheh’s previous film. He takes center-stage, and perhaps I should’ve seen this coming. In Come Drink With Me, a poison dart takes Golden Swallow out of the action for a while, and it’s a major plot point. In Golden Swallow, the same thing happens in the opening scene. Setting the tone, I guess.
And whether it’s once again the influence of the English dub or the startling music coming straight from the Forest Moon of Endor, this does feel like an early effort for the director. For example, some of the camerawork feels arbitrary. Here we have this askew angle which makes sense because the character is at a disadvantage. But earlier we have this aerial shot and I don’t know why. Now, look, I respect Chang Cheh — his film The Boxer from Shantung was one my early kung fu favorites — but there are filmmakers whose sensibilities would seem to align with yours as a viewer and those whose sensibilities do not. I’ve found a like spirit in King Hu, where Chang Cheh narrativizes and aestheticizes men in a manner I just don’t care for. I don’t think it’s bad or useless, it’s just what Sex and the City is for Sopranos people and vice versa. And then there are filmmakers who have a bit of both for you, like my nemesis Takashi Miike. In truth, the film Golden Swallow would work fine as an episode in a long-running series, a la Lone Wolf and Cub, and she could take on different roles, even supporting ones. But this is the second of two movies, a sequel to one where she already shared the spotlight. And the ending to this one closes the book in a really weird way, at least per the English dub.
Cheng Pei-pei was surprised by Ang Lee’s request to have her play the villain in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. At age 53, this would’ve been her first time. The younger Michelle Yeoh takes up the heroic role with baby Zhang Ziyi in the middle somewhere. If you happen to be concurrent with Star Trek: Discovery, you’ll know that Michelle Yeoh, now 58, is playing a villain, though it’s complicated. I’m not gonna draw any conclusions about how we view specifically women as they age, but let us not forget also her steely turn in Crazy Rich Asians. Zhang Ziyi may still be playing heroic characters in modern films like Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but we’ll just see in ten years. Although to be fair, her two most famous roles to Americans are troubled kung fu teen and the evil Asian bitch in Rush Hour 2. Anyway, Come Drink With Me is considered to be a foundational text in the wuxia genre, and so now let’s have a look at how far you can take that formula, how twisted you can get.
The Bride with White Hair (1993)
If the pure heroism is too flat for you as it may have been for the filmmakers, the White-Haired Witch makes for a perfect tonic, one undoubtedly spiked with black magic. Our next movie is directed by Ronny Yu, who you might know from Jet Li’s Fearless and Freddy vs. Jason. Bear with me for a second, but what if we just go ahead and combine those two movies? You might get something like our next film, The Bride with White Hair. What we have here is kind of a Romeo and Juliet tragic romance story, with the backdrop of two feuding clans, a sorcery cult and the Wudang Sect who I’m just gonna call the Wu-Tang Clan because fuck it. There are all these descriptors that float around in my head with this movie, like fairytale and magical realism, and I don’t know exactly how to apply them, or even quantify what I’m seeing to begin with. The characters are larger than life and don’t talk or behave the way regular people do, there are these leaps of logic in the plot, melodramatic coincidence — it’s a heightened reality that eases you into hallucinatory imagery. The magic is inconsistent and unexplained, more plot-motivated than aspect of a realized fictional world. But, I don’t know, I kind of like that. Despite its logic, this is a world that welcomes you in and feels so lush and sweeping and dangerous.
A recurring theme with Hong Kong kung fu like Shaw Brothers is the use of sets rather than outdoor locations because the filmmakers don’t have access to the Mainland settings being depicted. On the one hand, this has a cheapening effect, but in the right hands, the production might instead look exquisitely designed, when everything is built from scratch, every detail is accounted for. In The Bride with White Hair, realism gives way to theatricality, with the edges of artifice showing in every meticulous frame. It’s like a diorama, and it’s all bathed in that shiny James Cameron blue. So ‘90s. But if you’re not taken as I am by the gleaming, artificial beauty, just wait for it, because the moment the White-Haired Witch flies onto the scene and decapitates like half a dozen people with a whip — that’s it, man. I mean, fucking finally. My God, I’m gonna cry.
I’ve been sitting here for hours just talking and talking — “Ooh, this is okay, but she’s not respected enough” or “the martial arts are pretty good but the director has other priorities.” This is what I’m fucking talking about. I could just kiss Ronny Yu. The White-Haired Witch is a total badass — no apologies, no qualifications. Beautiful. You may hear me describe myself sometimes as a “gorehound,” perhaps a gorehound gourmet, if you will, but you don’t have to, because it only ever applies to action movies and slasher movies rather than horror generally. I’m not really into people suffering and slowly dying, but when the motions of the action genre are accented by geysers of blood, let’s say, I really get into that for some unknown reason. So unknown, I admit I spend a great deal of my wandering thoughts pacing over the mystery. It’s something to do with power and visceral expressions of domination — and then I have to make myself stop thinking.
But wait a minute, I hear you cry out — for a film called The Bride with White Hair, she has black hair, like one out of every five K-pop stars. So, the White-Haired Witch comes from a 1957 Hong Kong novel called Baifa Monü Zhuan, which Wikipedia graciously tells me translate to “Romance of the White-Haired Maiden,” or “Biography of the White-Haired Succuba,” which I’m pretty sure you can find hanging out on Tatooine. (Why Star Wars?). So, no, this character doesn’t come from antiquity like Hua Mulan, but she has been adapted several times into film. And plus… (decapitation). I can’t argue with that. She comes from this book I can’t read, even if I could get past the title, but she was actually introduced to me as a villain, in a different movie we will talk about later. By the end of this film, we discover we’ve been watching a villain’s origin story, the next logical step after doomed romance — a woman scorned from beyond the grave.
However, I may have to contest this, because as I’m having the discovery, I’m also thinking, “But is she really the villain?” In the universe of the film, she has taken on that role, but the movie structures its story toward challenging binary morality enough that we leave the film not judging this character, Lian. She is only reacting to a hostile world, and when she’s finally granted this horrifying agency, reborn as the succuba, she’s still honorable. She doesn’t kill the male lead, Zhuo, and for his part, he still loves her. The doomed romance narrative turns on fate, and there are indeed larger forces at play separating these two, but those forces are not always supernatural.
A motif in The Bride with White Hair is the innocence of children, first with the misbehaving disciples of the Wu-Tang Clan and then later with the girls from the cult who present Lian with her bridal dress. We might be asked to make a link between past and present here and apprehend the singular future facing all children in this land, this intergenerational conflict that consumes its warriors for very little reason. And we see how it happens, how this conflict has been adopted by either culture, how it snakes into society and distorts it. People in love are torn apart by love, by duty to family. Zhuo, who is our proxy character and arguable protagonist — this time, I don’t mind, actually, and not just because he’s Leslie Cheung — he moves from the civilized world of the Wu-Tang Clan to the animal world of the cult, and his encounter with Lian turns him against his people by bringing out his well-established rebellious side. Importantly, he first sees Lian first during childhood, that precious period of innocence before the otherness has taken root in his mind.
And otherness is interesting with The Bride with White Hair. Because this is a fantasy world, our normal is only so normal. Lian is this decapitating whirlwind, and we learn that she was raised by wolves, but how does that explain how she chops people in half with a whip? Her otherness becomes this big black hole of mystery — too little explains too much and I don’t care and nor does Zhuo. Baby, I don’t care where you come from, because the important thing is you’re here now, chopping off my head. I never really know what to say about The Bride with White Hair. The plot is simple, it’s not like a message movie. It’s just a really weird and wild ride, with one of the strangest villains I have ever seen. I’m not gonna spoil that one. And so, at the roll of the credits, as much as this feels like a legendary story, concerned with the origin of a mythical character, I’m perfectly willing to close the book right then and there. I can myself easily imagine Lian’s continuing adventures as the White-Haired Witch. Maybe she goes back to the wolves, or picks up the old vigilante veil. No matter what she does, it’s gonna be totally awesome and totally bloodsoaked, and just this once, I can allow myself a dream.
The Bride with White Hair 2 (1993)
Oh, who am I kidding? It’s so much better to see it. The Bride with White Hair 2 was released the same year as the original film, which is usually not a good sign. Ronny Yu is producing this time, and a Hong Kong-Canadian fellow named David Wu takes over. This is his directorial debut, as he works mostly as an editor, for such amazingly-edited films as Hard-Boiled — except for that one part. The style is toned down but only somewhat. The glistening, lithe visual texture remains, the performances are big and the violence is extreme. Also, difficult to see, which is a choice. The action scenes are photographed like The Lord of the Rings movies. Strange, because I noticed it and it bothered me, but I didn’t care. I don’t know that I can recommend The Bride with White Hair 2, but I had a very strong response to it.
I saw the original movie for the first time last year. I knew about it forever, but it was out of print forever. In fact, before it popped up on Amazon Prime, I eventually broke down and bought this DVD I’m pretty sure I can’t play, and my PS3 is on its last legs as is. So finally I watched it and thank God I liked it after all that time, but I didn’t know how to explain why I liked it. Yes, there’s a badass lady, and that’s the number one thing about my entire character, I’m very one-note, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of thematic meat on that bone for me to sink my teeth into. That’s what I’m looking for, in movies, is to bite them. It’s just good, and it’s romantic and lovely. Upon The Bride with White Hair 2, I feel like I have a better understanding of the original. And at the same time, it is a sequel — I don’t read this sequence as one big movie chopped into two. You could’ve told me these movies were made five years apart and I’d believe you. That still would’ve been the ‘90s.
And what’s there to understand? Well, the important part is that it’s a love story, which we covered with the last one, but I didn’t know that that statement would exist at the exclusion of other things, not-great things, perhaps. This movie dives headfirst into gender politics. You know it’s a straight-up battle of the sexes when women are torturing and killing men for being abusive, and when men are kicking women in the face to rescue a damsel. It’s one of those times where I’m on the edge of my seat, not because it’s so thrilling necessarily, but because they’re keeping me in the suspense of which side will ultimately be chosen — is this movie gonna turn out sexist or can I exhale?
I mean, “a woman scorned” is at the very least a maze-like route to empowerment, full of minotaurs. Let me tell you: her heart was so broken her hair turned white, and now she’s killing people with it. That’s where we pick up the story, ten years later. Lian has become a legend only whispered about by the surviving clans, who she’s systematically hunting down while reigning from her throne as a queen of the underworld. Oh, my God, that’s amazing. That’s the greatest thing anybody’s ever said, and I said it. But here’s the question: if the original movie was a villain’s origin story, does that make her the villain in this movie? She’s kind of a supernatural slasher, a kung fu character closer to Pinhead than Golden Swallow, so the answer is yes, but does it matter?
“Huh? What do you mean, what does it matter? Matter what?” I have to explain that. This is important to me because, and this is one of the weirdest points I’m gonna present today, I don’t like villainesses. They’ve long activated a discomfort of mine I have not shaken. I’ve gotten over a lot of these such bugaboos in my life of watching movies, but this has survived: eventually, they get their comeuppance. That’s it. But it makes me so uncomfortable that I can’t even enjoy their villainy. I mean, they seem to be enjoying it. I can’t handle evil queens, evil empresses, and especially not evil henchwomen, which will come up later. I don’t want to find out that, actually, I was supposed to dislike the White-Haired Witch, that all of her brutality and treachery was mere prelude to some grand appeal to traditional morality. This tension should’ve been relieved by a simple fact: I was afterall watching The Bride with White Hair. The first movie wasn’t about heroes and villains; why should this one be? But how do you call someone a witch without calling her a villain? Mm, big thoughts. File that one for later.
For the time being, let’s say I let myself enjoy Lian’s new queendom, and there’s a lot to love. The opening especially had my mind all atwitter. You know, instead of one movie about her man-killing adventures, there should be six, and in the last one, The Bride with White Hair: White Heaven in Hell, she kills the most people of any one character in a movie. That would be great. I just love her so much. So consider my shock that she wasn’t my favorite character in this movie. I know. I was blindsided, and I’m being serious, I just can’t shift between sincerity and insincerity so naturally. This is a character identified as Moon in the burned-in subtitles, also known as Ling, and she’s played by Christy Chung. She’s amazing. She’s a martial artist and archer, and while I don’t usually approve when the token female badass is the archer or sniper — those becoming suddenly feminine weapons befitting a female — her take on archery is super cool. I also really like her look, with the black and white. And the character is kind of the emotional heart of the film — at the same time a guy is in love with her, she’s in love with the main guy who’s in love with the main girl, and you immediately feel for the boyish best friend who’s always there for the guy, but he just doesn’t see her. She’s got this real sardonic, cool attitude, she’s always smoking and posing, like she was born backlit in blue.
I did not expect the man-killer kung fu slasher lady to be upstaged, but I think she was. So much so, that while watching Moon in action, I had this unforgivable thought, that Christy Chung must have been related to someone, like she’s the niece of the executive producer or something. The level of respect she’s afforded by the film, by the camera, by the narrative, by the characters — she’s so super cool, she’s got emotional depth, gets an epic death scene, and everybody cries over her as she dies. Maybe because she’s wearing men’s clothing, the whole production this time thought she was a guy? Whatever happened, I’m thankful, not only for this depiction and portrayal of a female character, but also for an application of what I think of as the “Daniels Principle,” because wouldn’t it be so nice if we could, as critics, arbitrarily manufacture principles? For those who don’t remember — I’m assuming that’s everybody — Daniels is the name of the character in the movie Alien: Covenant. I’ve mentioned that movie before on this YouTube channel — kind of a random thing, but I really like Alien, and I really liked Alien: Covenant, in part because it was so brutal. Easily the bleakest of all Alien movies, and part of it is the doom of this character Daniels. She isn’t really ascendant like Ripley or Machiko — DM me if you got that reference — and I think that’s okay, because this is a world where Ripley and Machiko exist. Daniels is a strong character in her own right, and so she speaks to a normalcy of strength, that not all strong women end up being superheroes, they’re all around us. Likewise, sometimes you have a demonic demonatrix, and sometimes you have Moon, a tomboy.
You also have the older woman who becomes a de facto leader of rebels, you have the main girl character, you have all the female soldiers, including this one who somehow manages to overact in The Bride with White Hair. I love her. This variety is also how we avoid troubling patterns like the Madonna-whore complex. You could see it almost happening between the witch — who is called a witch — and the lovely, devoted princess, or princess-like young lady. I think the movie is simply too interested in the witch to fall into that trap, and how could it not be? The actress Brigitte Lin is a goddess, the gender-bending superstar of Hong Kong who brings such a fire to this role. She’s perfect, and the film knows it. But in order to worship her like I do, maybe you have to shed some of that traditional morality. The filmmakers want you to feel a sense of injustice when she’s killing ostensibly innocent men, like the parade of musicians who get slaughtered, but because these scenes are so cool, and because the witch isn’t punished in the end like a villainess, can I fill in the gaps and say that the filmmakers believe there are no innocent men? Even before we apply that idea broadly, men are indeed evil in the world of The Bride with White Hair. There’s a very tangible and tragic evil passed down through the war, and these stories are all about cutting ties and escaping it.
It is again, ultimately, not about the binaries locked in confused play: man versus woman, Wu-Tang versus cult, descendents versus Witch. It’s a love story. I don’t feel like we come away from this movie judging Lian, once again, however, it’s curious that she is returned to normal when reunited with her love. And not only that, the radical couple is given closure by the very traditional couple. In terms of morality, should we read that cynically, or is it a reconciliation of values, an overture toward making the radical more familiar? Honestly, I don’t know about all that, because I feel like I’ve seen multiple instances of women turning to evil after heartbreak, but do they do it like this? That’s what I keep coming back to: the White-Haired Witch is so cool, nothing else matters. God, I am such a simple moviegoer, and yet movies still keep missing the very large target. The Bride with White Hair 2 makes it look effortless. Lian doesn’t actually do much, but the camera loves her. I think everybody does. So, I don’t know. I never expect people to be on my wavelength when it comes to this exact thing, so I felt, for a moment, as if I’d found true brethren in David Wu and Ronny Yu. Along with Kung Hu, then that’s Wu-Yu-Hu and myself, probably the strangest people you will ever behold. I think I’m letting loose too many of my proclivities here. Something about domination indeed. Moving on.
But wait a minute, wait a minute. Before we continue, I can’t let myself off the hook like that. Or, carefully construct the hook in the first place. “The warrior woman becomes, then, a powerful counterargument to the very premise of sexism. That’s why she’s important to me.” Huh. You know, I remember saying that. Is it too late to contain multitudes? Maybe you’ve already detected there’s something less intellectual about my interest in these characters and stories, and that threatens to undercut the real arguments here. It should, it ought to. I don’t know who I’m speaking to with that — maybe myself. And try as I might, I can’t seem to hammer this back into the “narrative” of our little video here. But it must be noted. And as it has been, shall we continue?
The White-Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom (2014)
Oh, shall we ever. A new White-Haired Witch movie? Is she back, kicking ass now in the 21st century? Have my prayers been answered? Jesus Christ! This movie was brutal. And by that, I do not mean in terms of violence. She beheads nobody. Nobody. Nobody. Beyond that, I don’t know what went wrong here, because it’s another adaptation of the story, basically a remake of The Bride with White Hair, but it’s so different — it is opposite. So, what’s the deal? Was it serving too many masters, split between too many genres? And please don’t tell me that this is the more faithful adaptation of the book, because that will break my heart, and I’m so fragile — look at me. Though if it is, this is how I come to appreciate Ronny Yu even more, because his vision was so specific and so effective, it was hardly crying out for a revision. So what kind of vandal thought goes into that revision?
Well, ironically, they stuffed a whole bunch of bullshit in. There’s all this political intrigue and different sides and actual historical events. But aside from the script, just look at this movie. Again, what happened? Tumbling we go from the snowy forests of the 1990s into ancient Tatooine, Attack of the Clones version because oh, my God, this green screen. Look at this: they’re falling? Everything is just as artificial as in The Bride with White Hair, but it’s all CGI now, washing all the awesome sand in weird light that just goes away after a while. In the beginning, it’s the forest from Annihilation, and in the end, that’s just the desert. There’s no atmosphere, there’s nothing heightened or mythical or fantastic, it’s just… it’s just the desert. And while we understand the Dutch angle is better reserved for cinematic travesties like Battlefield Earth or Resident Evil: Apocalypse, it’s a tool in Ronny Yu’s hand, not a weapon. Here, we don’t have any stylized cinematography except for the frequent overhead shots, which actually convey less information than they seemed to think.
The title “The White-Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom” is a mouthful, but I also think it’s inaccurate. A better title would be “Zhuo Yihang and His Awesome Girlfriend,” or maybe “Zhuo Yihang and His Girlfriend.” If this was my introduction to the White-Haired Witch, I never would’ve thought of her again. When the new writers were adapting this story, I wonder what they saw in the character, because she’s so reduced. Why bother doing a retelling if you don’t retain the signature elements? It’d be like if they made a Godzilla movie where he doesn’t look anything like Godzilla and can’t breathe fire, or where you don’t really see him a whole lot, or where a bunch of dumb stuff happens or where nothing happens. Godzilla looks like this and this and this and the White-Haired Witch looks like this. What’s all this garbage? Okay, she’s good at martial arts, if martial arts is spinning around a lot like Link, but everybody’s good at martial arts. There’s no reason to suspect Lian is special even in the context of this world.
And is she? She’s so normal. She’s one among the Lunar Kingdom, I guess, which looks like people living in a cave, and everybody seems really civilized, just poor. When she says she was raised by wolves, I don’t believe her. She has human matters to attend to, just like Zhuo and everybody else, there is no otherness, no intrigue. There are leaps required to buy into this story; it works better when pared down to its elements. The emotions can be broader, the plot can be looser. Here, in the Lunar Kingdom, I have no reason to believe that these characters would be in love, because they have so much going on that they care about to care about each other. And that’s not how you do a tragic romance. Take it from me, expert in romance. In the original movie, their other relationships set them against each other accidentally, as if by fate. Here, it’s just miscommunication because everybody’s speaking so clearly otherwise, all in the same language.
I can totally buy that you guys wanted to make a version of the White-Haired Witch that was more about romance than violence, because certainly this is scrubbed of violence. But the romance also falls apart, or never comes together, for other reasons. The depiction of Zhuo here really underscores what Leslie Cheung brought to the role. Where he was sensitive and intimate, this new Zhuo is far more traditional. The actor, Huang Xiaoming, does a fine job, but I think the material brings out a certain nastiness that doesn’t fit my image of the character from the older movies. I don’t know why they framed the romance as so coercive. Like in Rocky, like, dude you wrote the movie. Basically, it’s love at first sight for the guy, and then all of a sudden it’s this grand romance. She needs to be convinced, and then she is. Wow. And then he kind of betrays her, a misunderstanding I believe, and her hair turns white and nothing else changes.
That scene was terrible. As this transformation is happening, she’s being surrounded by guards, and instead of doing the expected thing, which is taking their heads and affixing them to her belt so she’s got a head belt nodding in time to her step, she just lays down. Please understand that this is poison to me, like drinking poison. She sucks. She can’t do anything. In fact, she has to be rescued. Finally, in the last ten minutes, she recites an ancient scroll of wisdom or whatever the fuck and gains superpowers at the expense of her memory sort of, and then fights the last guy in the Battle of Geonosis. Interestingly, the first climax in this seven-hour film involves Zhuo being damseled, and she comes to the rescue.
You didn’t earn it, guy. Loving the role reversal, but you spent the whole movie being so not my tempo. Honestly, you know what it feels like? Somebody saw The Bride with White Hair and the sequel and wrote fan-fiction for the first and last time in their lives — this is the kind of guy who doesn’t write fan-fiction. So it’s just self-insertion. “What if the White-Haired Witch was my awesome girlfriend?” Well, that kind of makes her less awesome, especially if you’re basically as good if not better than she is. And look, as one-dimensional a moviegoer I might be, I’m totally okay when women are not badass — it’s not a requirement, it’s a strong preference. One of my favorite movies is The Thing, where there are no women. I never played the Gears of War games that involved women because the thought of them being subject to that sort of ultraviolence made my skin crawl, even if they were dishing it out, too. But the White-Haired Witch is not that territory. It’s like bros came in and this is their take. You have your things, I have mine, despite that nobody claims ownership of Lian ever. Unless they’re crazy cultists who spin around the room — and again, not gonna spoil it.
Yeah, this movie made me kind of mad, but mostly just tired. You know what the crazy part is? Despite its 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s not even the worst White-Haired Witch movie. Not by a long shot. Prepare yourself. This is real. It’s called Wolf Devil Woman, and it is a movie I would classify, not generously, not scathingly — because it has reduced my faculties of criticism so — as “unwatchable.” Like, technically, literally. I didn’t finish it. I did not even come close. It’s a Z-grade kung fu movie, but where Z-grade in America usually means astronauts walking around the woods looking for dinosaurs for an hour, apparently Hong Kong Z-grade means epileptic editing. There’s a lot going on here, but just look at it. Nothing I can say will match the movie’s own dissuasive power against it. So, in its own words, please, enjoy Wolf Devil Woman.
I have no words. The White-Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom is a Chinese movie produced in Mainland China, as opposed to in Hong Kong. Not only that, it was released in the year 2014. From what I understand of Mainland Chinese cinema, it’s in a pretty sorry state, and we understand that because of all the hoops Hollywood jumps through to appease the Chinese government. Well, Lunar Kingdom provides us a decent window into that story, through the eyes of the star Fan Bingbing. Now, for those of you who don’t know, there are now two pieces of information about Fan Bingbing to provide up-front: one, she’s one of the most famous celebrities in the world — $100-million net worth, extremely popular — and two, she’s the one who was disappeared by the government for three months.
The version of this story I read was in Vanity Fair, a piece by May Jeong. In 2018, Fan Bingbing, one of the most visible people in China, vanished. Nobody, not her fans, not her coworkers, heard anything, saw any updates. She was just gone. Turns out, she was being detained by authorities for tax evasion, and held under “residential surveillance” at a holiday resort. She couldn’t communicate with the outside world, and she was being watched constantly. When she resurfaced, she made an apology online that ended with this sentence: “Without the party and the state, without the love of the people, there would have been no Fan Bingbing!” Oh, I hate everything about that. And this story.
You see, tax evasion is bullshit. Not because it’s cool to not pay taxes, kids, but because nobody does. The Panama Papers leak two years before Fan Bingbing disappears, exposing the science, the culture of tax evasion by wealthy individuals and corporations, and the world does not change. Raiden throws his dog tags and that’s it, man. Who goes to prison for tax evasion? You were thinking Wesley Snipes. Other people become president. And that’s exactly the thing here. Apparently, everybody in the Chinese film industry underreports their earnings and plays loosey-goosey with the finances. The government’s starting to crack down on that as part of a larger regulation effort, so they went after Fan Bingbing to send a message. What are they, the fucking Triads? There’s something ironic about this. Because you’re the nation’s biggest star, you’re now the nation’s biggest target. And a film industry under the thumb of the government sounds pretty fucking bad. For all the grief we give Hollywood, state media is not one of their sins, except for when they want to sell movies to China.
So, when I said that this movie is not the worst to feature the White-Haired Witch, I’ll give you ten dollars if you thought I was gonna mention The Forbidden Kingdom. Hand to God, this is why I think Golden Swallow and the White-Haired Witch are important to the history of Chinese warrior women in fiction, because they were both featured in this fucking movie. It’s so weird, how we process the world. But The Forbidden Kingdom actually brings us full circle. I’d be lying to you unconvincingly if I said this video had nothing to do with the now-released American Mulan movie starring Liu Yifei. And wouldn’t you know it? The Forbidden Kingdom was her English-language debut. Of course, at the time it was notable for being the big Jackie Chan and Jet Li crossover, but that was before the age of crossovers, so nobody knew to make it good.
Liu Yifei plays a character named Golden Sparrow, and she says things like “Come drink with me.” So you’re sitting there in the movie theater in 2008 and they say she’s Golden Sparrow and you’re like, “Oh, from…” “Come drink with me.” What an experience. Of course, mostly people were sitting there in the movie theater thinking about leaving. And indeed, this was my introduction to the White-Haired Witch, and as portrayed by Li Bingbing, she left me intrigued, but only because she reminded me so much of an earlier on-screen crush. She’s definitely better in this movie than in Lunar Kingdom, but she’s playing the villain’s henchman. You know what that means — I don’t need that. Villainy is, of course, a simplistic interpretation of the character, but I am impressed the filmmakers decided to invoke her and Golden Swallow. They might not have been interested in the actual legendary actresses who played these characters, but sure, Cheng Pei-Pei and Brigitte Lin don’t have the American profile of Jet Li and Jackie Chan. So I suppose we’ll settle with this, or not, because who cares? It’s The Forbidden Kingdom, a very, very Disney movie that somehow wasn’t.
But there is an actual factual Disney movie that a lot of people cared about, until they saw it. Mulan began life around the time that Zhang Ziyi was being considered for the role, because to date she’s the only Chinese woman Hollywood knows. We know that controversy followed this film like a spectre but was also born inside of it: enter the popular petition to “Tell Disney You Don’t Want A Whitewashed Mulan!” Yes, that was a concern, and no, it was not unfounded. I’m sure the casting of Yifei made some people happy once upon a time, which then left the door open for the hiring of a non-Chinese, but female, director. It’s the diversity calculus, adjusting always toward mitigation. Fast-forward a few years and we learn there’s gonna be no love interest, despite that the character Li-Shang meant a lot to fans for the LGBTQ+ elements. And of course, this film was delayed many, many times, for the last time because of the coronavirus. At the time of its release, it went for $30 on a subscription service, the perfect end to the perfect story. That’s no justice for Jason Scott Lee. However, what we really want to zero in on is what happened in 2019 a few months into the Hong Kong protests, which were all about the independence of Hong Kong from our Triad-like Chinese government. Liu Yifei made a pro-police, anti-protester statement online, sparking the hashtag #BoycottMulan. In response, anti-protester Chinese including state media used the hashtag #SupportMulan as a kind of rallying cry against the people of Hong Kong. What a disaster. But that’s Liu Yifei’s politics. That’s what she fights for, and that, unfortunately, makes her a warrior, too.
With magical powers, in fact. Um, what I’ve been reading about that movie makes me think it’s not gonna be the difference in a discussion like this. Mulan may very well be special this time because she’s a Jedi knight. That’s cool, you know, that’s what I was hoping for. We’re still doing this. We’re doing what we’ve always done. Now, having not seen the movie, I can’t say for sure it’s an insufficient depiction of a warrior woman, but I will say that bad depictions accumulate, ultimately effecting conspiracy. This is the mythology of “women can’t do something,” in this case, be physically supreme. It takes a great many varied forms, high and low culture, because it is, simply, great and many. And the problem is that this conspiracy traces back to a kernel of truth. By the power of science, I do decree that, on average, men have greater muscle mass than women. That’s the argument I keep hearing. And you know what? Let’s not even qualify it with “on average,” men have greater muscle mass than women, period, and that means they’re stronger. That’s where we are. Sergeant, fuck your magical powers.
And it’s not an argument I’m only hearing from men who dislike women. Let me tell you about a moment, in college, when a health science professor, a woman, shared this very fact, and my stomach dropped. I’ll never forget it. There was no malice in this sentiment, no gender politics at all, and that’s what made it so much worse. Here was a health scholar, somebody in the know, loading my enemy’s gun with rhetorical ammunition. And my mind was in a whirl: that’s the ballgame. Of course women can’t fight, shouldn’t be equal athletes or take on combat roles in the military or be police officers — and whatever our feelings about representation in toxic spaces, it’s all connected, because again, once you believe that you have hard evidence, a scientific rationale for keeping women out of one space, you’ve got a rationale for every space, because the project of sexism isn’t concerned with individual spaces — it’s everything, all things connected, and it connects back to muscle mass, or so my sincerest, demented belief has it — biological difference is the bedrock of patriarchy. They’ll tell you men don’t get pregnant, women do — thus, the creation of segregated spheres.
But you know what? While I hardly require time to make a fool of me, it does so anyway. I learned to see this scientific argument as the first argument, entree to a discussion with a far better conclusion. This is where I turned to Bruce Lee and mixed martial arts in the days before weight classes. How did men battle opponents with greater muscle mass? The secret is in the philosophies of martial arts, of deemphasizing the role of physiological boundaries and emphasizing the role of the mind in combat. This is the lesson we see with Wang Cong’er, Wing Chun, Ip Man. Does muscle mass equate to strength? Surely, but so does speed and skill. So we got to ask, what are we talking about here? I’m not forwarding the argument that every woman could beat up every man, so I don’t care about your matchups — it’s about gatekeeping at the highest levels of society and everyday perception. We really believe they can’t do anything. And for Christ’s sake, it’s not like women have no muscle mass, you fucking… I will take that cue. It’s a fine line, isn’t it, between an interest in women’s bodies and an interest in women’s bodies?
I know how important it is to me, and that’s bad enough, but that means I also know how important it is to other guys. Because it’s all the same thing. It’s about control. It’s growing up in a world where men are entitled to the bodies of women — it may have taken strange shape with me, but that’s only barely consolatory. And I don’t know what kind of penance I can perform, but… please leave your suggestions in the comments below and don’t forget to like and subscribe. It’s not about me, and it’s maybe it’s not about you, either. You’re an adult. You know what’s best for your life and your body. “Is Mulan believable?” I mean, that might not apply the way I’m asking it. So, we go back to the components of the warrior woman. What I want to say is this: Everyone has something to fight for. You already know what it is, and that’s what’s ultimately important, because it’s the first step. Past that point, there’s nothing stopping you.
“Biography.” Wang Cong’er.
Davis, Rebecca. “China Uses Disney’s ‘Mulan’ to Attack Hong Kong Protests.” Variety.
“The Elegance of Movement – Master Bow Sim Mark.” Slanted Flying.
Fercility. “The Qing Dynasty – China’s Last Dynasty.” China Highlights.
“History and Principles of Wing Chun Kung Fu.” Stanford University Wing Chun Student Association.
“History of Wing Chun.” International Applied Wing Chun Federation.
Koon, Wee Kek. “How Shaolin Temple survived every attempt to destroy it.” Inkstone.
Lee, Lily Xiao Hong, et al. Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: v. 1: The Qing Period, 1644-1911. Routledge, 2015.
Meng, Benny, and Steve Rudnicki. “Misconceptions of Wing Chun.” Ving Tsun Museum.
Watkins, Thayer. “The White Lotus Religion in China.” San José State University Department of Economics.
Wertz, Richard R. “The White Lotus Rebellion.” Exploring Chinese History.