White Haired Devil Lady (Zhang Xinyan, 1981)

The problem with a movie like White Haired Devil Lady (aka Sorceress’s Wrath) is that there are so many points of interest that it’s hard to know where to begin. Great Wall produced it, and it appears to have location shots taken in the Mainland. This implies certain things not only of its historical importance (there weren’t many martial arts films or Hong Kong co-productions filmed in Mainland before Zhang Xinyan’s Shaolin Temple) but of its political intents, coming not only from an avowed left-wing studio but possibly with the blessings of the PRC censor board. It’s also director Zhang Xinyan’s third (maybe fourth) adaptation of a Liang Yusheng novel, in this case the same novel that provided the basis for Ronny Yu’s celebrated The Bride with White Hair. It’s difficult to even keep up with the movie when each scene reminds one that they aren’t watching a typical wuxia movie. The silly part: White Haired Devil Lady is a typical wuxia movie in all the ways that actually matter.

The story begins with a corrupt government official transporting his ill-gotten gains with an escort from Wudang’s martial arts school. Stopping at an inn, he is confronted by chivalrous bandit Lien Nichang -- known to most as White Haired Devil Lady because of her silver-hair wig. She not only takes the gold, but injures the Wudang swordsman in a way that renders him incapable of using his sword. Insulted, he informs the rest of his martial clan, who are rather incensed, but not especially willing to go hunt down scary white-haired bandit women.

Another of Wudang’s itinerant swordsmen, Cho Yihang, travels back to his hometown after hearing of the insult his brother-in-arms endured, though not the circumstances leading to it. Along the way, he stops for shelter in a cave, and finding a beautiful woman inhabiting the cave, befriends her. Since she isn’t decked out with white hair during the day, Cho Yihang has no idea that the woman to whom he is so attracted is actually his potential enemy, Lien Nichang.

Joining some government troops in an attempt to capture Nichang, he realizes that he’s fighting the woman he loves, and after brief deliberation, switches sides and kills the government troops. The army’s commanders use this as leverage against the Wudang School to coerce them into aiding their fight against Nichang. Cho is torn between his admiration and devotion to Nichang and his sense of loyalty and obligation to his School/religious order and comrades. If you’ve seen The Bride with White Hair (and I find it difficult to believe you’re reading this if you haven’t) the outcome of this tension should will not surprise.

I admit my inadequacy as a critic of left-wing Hong Kong studio films; whatever sort of political viewpoint White Haired Devil Lady promulgates, if it actually does so, flew far over my head. It seems like the sort of film that China’s censors would surely dislike, with its flying swordswomen and characters far more concerned with their personal issues than with the fate of the nation. In that sense, White Haired Devil Lady is the exact inverse of, for example, Holy Robe of Shaolin Temple (Tsui Siu-Ming, 1985), whose major theme is the necessity of giving up on personal desire for the good of the state, or “the people,” as it is referred to in such films. But the location shooting definitely looks to be in the Mainland, and while the Hong Kong Film Archive catalog doesn’t mention the PRC as a shooting location, it does note that action director Teng Ta’s only other film credit is for, The Spy in the Palace (Huang Yu and Yu Pei-yung, 1981), another obscure film from the consolidated left-wing mega studio/distribution group, Sil-Metropole.

White Haired Devil Lady has a very old Hong Kong feel. Its opening musical sequence feels more like what one might see in the Mandarin language wuxia films of the late sixties (such as Zhang’s earlier film, The Jade Bow) than it does similar sequences from PRC propaganda. Similarly, the costumes, acting, and cinematography all recall the stagy glamour of 1960’s Hong Kong period pieces. Were it not for the fight scenes, one might guess it was made in the early seventies at the latest. One early fight scene contains one of the more interesting swordfights in a movie of this kind, and the latter fight scenes attempt cinematic effect with snappy editing -- all the better to hide the necessary stunt doubles. Those stunt doubles do some fantastic work.

It definitely doesn’t resemble, in any way, Ronny Yu’s bizarre take on the story. It’s a very mannered, old-fashioned film. The leads don’t sizzle with sexual chemistry. There’s a sub-plot going on for about half of the film’s running time that’s interminable, but out of (I’m guessing) textual fidelity, the film sees it through, too respectful of the original author’s work to just get on with the plot proper. The fighting is bloodless. The passion doesn’t exist. It’s both toothless and neutered. The denouement left me wondering, “So what?”

It’s a very interesting movie just because of what it is. White Haired Devil Lady will probably amuse fans who want to see all the disparate factions of Chinese language cinema (or martial arts films) but it’s a very dated film, as it was when it debuted in 1981. I have a lot of good will toward it. It should make for an interesting triple feature with The Jade Bow and The Patriotic Knights, the director's other (largely uncelebrated) adaptations of Liang Yusheng.

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