The White-Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom directed by Jacob Cheung
I’m always in the mood for a good wuxia-fantasy, and The White-Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom has everything you’d expect from the genre: a noble hero, a sprawling plot, a number of gravity-defying action scenes, and an enigmatic woman at its heart.
Based on the novel Baifa Monü Zhuan by Liang Yusheng, the story is set in the last days of the Ming Dynasty, a time in which China is threatened by both foreign invaders and internal corruption. Famine spreads across the land, but a woman known only as Jade Raksha helps the starving people by attacking soldiers and stealing supplies.
From the Wudang Mountains journeys a man called Zhuo Yihang, chosen by his people to deliver the Emperor’s medicine to the palace. On the way he gets caught up in the political machinations of his country when he crosses paths with Jade Raksha. Just as he’s accused of the Emperor’s assassination when the red pills seemingly kill him, Raksha is framed for the death of Governor Zhuo — Yihang’s grandfather.
Despite this, the two manage to fall in love in the tranquillity of Lunar Kingdom, a beautiful but strategically important citadel in the mountains. The White-Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom manages to build a fairly sweet love story between the two of them, with Raksha drawn to Yihang’s kindness and wisdom (instead of rakishness or faux-charm — as you’d expect from a Western production). Huang Xiaoming exudes warmth and good humour, while Fan Bingbing is an ethereal beauty. It’s easy to see why their characters might fall in love.
The plot is difficult to unravel, with all the arranged marriages, child emperors, war generals, devious eunuchs, masked secret police, double-crosses, and conflicted spies you could hope for — good luck untangling it all! The White-Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom doesn’t give us much time to fully grasp the political situation, and the pacing is downright frantic at times. Even the quieter moments feel rushed.
But an interesting pattern arises over the course of the film, one that requires each of the main characters to give up something precious for the greater good: Wei Zhongxian becomes a eunuch in order to free his daughter, Zhuo Yihang endangers his own integrity to protect Wudan’s reputation, Jin Duyi surrenders his ambition in order to fulfil his father’s orders, and Jade Raksha is faced with the choice of giving up her memories of Yihang in order to learn the techniques she needs to save his life. It’s a compelling theme of sacrifice found in heroes and villains alike, and one I wish could have been explored more with more measured pacing.
There are some beautiful images and fight scenes, though the green-screen effects leave a lot to be desired, as does some of the CGI. And despite the otherwise lovely soundtrack, the film chooses to end with a maudlin pop song that renders the final scene completely silly.
I watched The White-Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom with English subtitles, some of which felt far too modern (using slang and expressions such as “sis” and “she fell for him” and so on) but it’s an entertaining film while it lasts, neither terrible nor excellent.