Sure, the colors are vibrant, the scenery is gorgeous, and the stars are pleasant to look at in Zhang Zhiliang romantic wuxia epic…but why introduce a powerful kick-ass female lead if love is just going to drag her down?
The White-Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom tells the tale of a monk (Xiaoming Huang) who ruins the life of a perfectly normal bandit-cult leader-witch (Bingbing Fan) who was doing perfectly fine keeping her people safe until he came along. O.K. that’s a bit harsh. The movie is a love story set during a period of turmoil, and I don’t think Zhang Zhiliang meant for us to notice the ways in which love ruins her. But while Yihang the monk means well, and he is a dashing lover, I couldn’t help wondering if the White-haired witch wouldn’t have been better off without him. Wishing the two lovers had never met certainly isn’t the reaction one is supposed to have to a romantic movie.
The film is set during the late Ming period during the reign of the a fictionalized Tianqi Emperor. The future White-Haired Witch is leading a band of Robin-Hood style bandits holed up in a fort that happens to sit on a mountain pass that the Manchu Jin would like to use to invade China. The Luna Fort, as it is known, is a relatively impenetrable stronghold. Strong enough that neither the Ming or Manchu armies dare attack it. While she isn’t yet their leader, Jade as the Witch is called, is a powerful and fearless fighter who trusts no one and has been warned by her master not to fall in love. All she needs to do is recite a scroll about apathy and she will lose all connection to anyone she loves, but reach her full potential.
Enter Yihang, who has suddenly found himself the leader of his monastery and has been sent on a mission to court. On his way there, he meets Jade in a grotto and falls in love with her. Like all good sword yielding couples, they fall for each other while she is trying to kill him. She should have stuck with her first instincts. But alas, she trusts him.
Since the narrative involves court intrigue, treachery, betrayal and a mystery, I won’t spoil it for you. But I will explain why I found the movie disappointing. Even though Bingbing is beautiful (when she hasn’t been made to look so sickly pale), Xiaoming isn’t so bad himself, the natural scenery has been enhanced to give their love a gorgeous setting, the movie just isn’t that romantic. As the co-lead, Jade is given the opportunity for vast powers, but mostly refuses to use them. The normal character arc for a female who begins with a “mistrust of everyone” as a flaw is for her to gain something by the end by learning to trust. Because the movie is a tragic one, trust becomes a fatal flaw rather than a new virtue. While it is often good to invert standard arcs, the movie works overtime to present a love that leads to multiple deaths, a slaughter of innocent people, weakens the kingdom, and a lot of other nonsense as virtue. But it isn’t a virtue. It’s just a destructive love that holds back an otherwise kick-ass female heroine. A relationship doesn’t feel romantic when innocent bystanders suffer for it. As longingly as Bingbing and Xioaming look into each other’s eyes, the relationship isn’t passionate enough to make up for those losses.