Judge Dawn Hunt’s hacker alias is The Blue Haired Glitch.
So let’s get started with two announcements which might sway you before I even get in to particulars. First of all I have not read the book by Yusheng Liang upon which this film is based. So those looking for a book-to-film comparison will sadly need to search elsewhere. Secondly, this film is subtitled with no spoken language option other than Mandarin thus if you hate reading subtitles go ahead and skip this movie altogether.
White Haired Witch (also known as The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom) tells the story of Jade Raksha aka Lian Nishang (Bingbing Fan, X-Men: Days of Future Past) and Zhuo Yihang, (Xiaoming Huang, The Guillotines) two strangers brought together by chance who end up uniting when corrupt officials frame each of them for a murder. Yihang is the newly appointed leader of the Wudang, a group of martial artists who are allied with the palace. But when Emperor Guangzhong is poisoned blame falls on the Wudang and Yihang specifically. Meanwhile the sorceress Jade Raksha is framed for the murder of General Zhuo Zhonglian, who happens to be Yihang’s grandfather.
When Yihang and Jade meet the chemistry is instantaneous. But once they are each facing murder charges it’s time to come to a decision. Will they ignore everything happening for the chance to be together? Or will they try and figure out who set them up and why, even if it costs them a happy ending? Further complicating things are the responsibilities each bear. Jade is the champion of the neglected common folk, using her skills to help them gain much-needed supplies such as food and water. Yihang has promised to serve the Wudang for the rest of his life, and as the envoy of his house everything he does reflects back on his brethren. So what could be seen as an easy decision becomes anything but.
White Haired Witch works for me because it has the main elements I look for in a martial art epic: 1) compelling characters; 2) visually effective martial art choreography; and 3) a believable world. Yihang and Jade are a well-crafted example of a dynamic and static pairing, with Yihang serving as the static example. An effective static character isn’t boring, rather his personality is engaging from the first time we encounter him through the end credits, and Yihang definitely fulfills this definition. He possesses a quiet confidence which is quite compelling. Jade, meanwhile, is equally captivating because we can see the changes she undergoes. The best part of these characters (and the actors’ performances of them) is how well they balance each other out. Neither one steals the spotlight, instead working well together to craft this world and showcase the journey.
But no matter how great a character is if they cannot perform martial arts in a martial arts epic you’re drawn out of the film. Thankfully this isn’t at all the case here as the fight sequences have a nicely stylized aesthetic with some top-rate wire work to boot. Nothing jerky here, with the added bonus of not a lot of visible blood either. That’s admittedly something I may be alone in appreciating but copious amounts of blood in a fantasy can be too visceral at times, another thing which may pull me out of my enjoyment. And speaking of fantasy I don’t know if the book has a more fantastical bent or not but the film definitely feels as though the fantasy elements were reined in. The cinematography works best during medium and close-up shots, with wide shots occasionally betraying technical elements such as the CGI used to heighten the landscapes.
In terms of a believable world this is where that tendency to rein in the fantasy comes in to play. This story takes place during the Ming dynasty and contains some historically accurate information. For example Emperor Guangzhong did indeed die under suspicious circumstances in what became known as “The Case of the Red Pills.” By taking historical facts and introducing subtle fantasy elements there is a grounding to the world which allows the viewer to connect to the film in different ways. By not focusing on overt displays of magic we can accept this world more readily, which in turn allows us to focus more intently on the characters and their actions.
The technical specs aren’t over the top but they are definitely better than the DVD. The video is a 1.78:1 transfer and while there can be the occasional soft focus in a wide shot the transfer itself is clean and sharp for the most part, with a strong muted palette which never becomes faint. The audio is a DTS-HD Master Audio track and it and its Dolby 2.0 partner are only offered in Mandarin. But they are well-mixed and leveled, with noticeable attention paid to the dialogue component and making sure it’s audible. Overall both video and audio will not disappoint.
The special features are two-fold. First up is the trailer for the film, followed by a behind-the-scenes featurette which is broken up into six separate components. It’s noteworthy for the section on Xiaoming Huang. Let me just say…dude got jacked up during the filming. There’s footage of the accident and recovery so take that as a warning or encouragement, whichever applies to you.
Effective martial arts epic grounded in some historical fact.