Reviewing movies is like being on a jury for a trial. You have to piece together all of the evidence at hand to come to a verdict. The evidence you have to look at comes in the form of story structure, writing, directing, editing, performances - even visual effects can be a deciding factor in the final estimate of a particular film. On its surface ‘White-Haired Witch’ is a beautiful sweeping historical epic fantasy film filled with action, love, and intrigue. Unfortunately when you dig into the film, none of these elements come together in a way that creates a meaningful story.
The film opens with a thrilling fight sequence staged on a precariously balancing rock. The fight is in fact a game, a character study to see which warrior is worthy of becoming the new head of the Wudang temple. By sacrificing himself for the greater good during the tournament, Zhuo Yihang played by Xiaoming Huang earns the respect of his master and is named the new head. Part of his duties is to carry out a mission to deliver “the red pills” to the Emperor at this palace.
And it’s right about this point that things just get entirely too confusing. This film, even as a fantasy picture complete with wirework acrobatics and stylized fight sequences, aims to ground itself in a historical context. In 1620, the Emperor was poisoned - presumably by the red pills and the ensuing chaos throughout China lead to wars, famine, plagues, and numerous acts of treason. Unless you know a thing or two about Chinese history, much of this is going to go over your head - as it did mine. In fact I actually had to look up a lot of the information this film tried to present just to get an idea of what’s going on. And that’s where this movie unfortunately fails, you shouldn’t have to look up history to enjoy a film.
This is in part because of some rather clunky editing. This movie’s drive seems to be to move from one incredibly choreographed fight sequence to the next with little thought or motivation as to how to get there or how to make it fit within the structure of the overall narrative. The young warrior princess Lian Niching played by Bingbing Fan (X-Men: Days of Future Past) is trying to force the hand of a local governor to open up food supplies to the starving people outside his fort. It just so happens that this tyrannical governor is the uncle of Yihang, who ends up working as a healer, helping Niching treat her people who have been infected by the plague.
Yihang then finds himself at the center of a war that threatens to ingulf Wudang and Niching’s cult and spoil their budding romance. If this review is starting to sound a bit sprawling, it’s because this movie is just that way; sprawling. It’s entirely too much story with too many characters and players to be contained within a 140 minute run time. that isn’t to say this isn’t an interesting movie. After all I did go so far as to look up what details I could about the actual history of these events, but it is outright confusing if you don’t already have at least a cursory knowledge.
Then you have the numerous action sequences. Maintaining the fantasy effect, several of them are punctuated with a fair amount of CGI trickery. Most of the time this is okay since it serves the nature of the movie well. However, the film’s climax appears to have been shot entirely in front of a green screen giving it a ‘Sin City’ feel albeit with a lot more color, but it feels odd and out of place considering the immense practical effects and detailed production design on display throughout the rest of the film.
‘White-Haired Witch ‘ is a movie that looks and feels longer than this particular cut of the film. I wasn’t able to discover whether or not there is in fact a longer, more complete cut of the film out there, but there should be if there isn't one. It’s a movie where after every awkward jump cut to a new scene or location, I wanted to know more about what was going on because it felt like at one time there was more to be seen. But as it is for this particular cut, it’s a tough one to suggest for anyone that isn’t already a fan of martial arts films. I want to recommend this more than I do, but with the evidence at hand, I’m left to say it’s for fans only.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
‘White-Haired Witch’ arrives on Blu-ray via Well Go USA on a BD50 disc. Housed in a standard Blu-ray case with dust sleeve that mirrors the same cover artwork, the disc opens with a trio of trailers for other Well Go releases that can’t be skipped, only fast forwarded through. In the technical details, it lists the aspect ratio as 16:9, but it’s in fact closet to 2.35:1.
‘White-Haired Witch’ comes to beautiful, colorful life in this AVC 2.35:1 1080p presentation. Color is certainly on display here, from the opening credits to the climatic battle, they have real and steady pop to them. Flesh tones also maintain a nice natural tone to them. Detail is exquisite for the vast majority of the films. CGI effects come and go and have this flat lifeless feel to them, that’s largely because this was a major 3D release in China, and presented here in 2D, they feel out of place.
Because this movie was originally intended to be in 3D, there is a fantastic sense of depth throughout. Black levels and shadows are nice and even as well giving way to a nice dimensional effect to the visuals. For many of the fight sequences, it made me wish this disc included a 3D presentation option - I imagine it would be quite a thrill.
‘White-Haired Witch’ arrives with a robust DTS-HD MA 5.1 Mandarin audio track. Levels and mixing are top notch as dialogue is never lost over the rousing score or the abundant sound effects. The track also makes fantastic use of the surround channels, from the action scenes to the calm quiet moments there is a feeling of presence and subtle sounds to keep the imaging lively and exciting. Given it’s recent vintage, there aren’t any hisses, pops or dropouts to spoil the track.
There isn't a dubbed English track present on this disc, so the English subtitles do a fine job with the dialoge and the embedded information text that flashes on screen from time to time. All around a great audio track that complements this martial arts action film.
Making Of: These are a series of six behind the scenes features that cover everything from the cast, to the fight choreography, to the film’s ultimate debut.
Huang Xiaoming (HD 20:04) The actor reflects on the course of his career that lead him to this film. Showcases a lot of behind the scenes footage including aerial stunt work and a vicious on-set injury that fractured his foot and toes in multiple places.
Jiangsu Heroes (HD 20:04) This is a fun feature that gives the supporting cast of bad guys a little more time to talk about their characters, motivations and the difficulty of shooting fight sequences.
Wudang Swordsman (HD 20:04) This feature details more about the motivations of Yihang and the role his character plays through the film and the differences between his mythological counterpart.
Arrival of the Witch (HD 20:04) This is an interview with actress Bingbing Fan and her layered character. She talks about the stunt work but also how the director added more to her character to flesh her role out within the story.
Nirvana After 100 Rebirths (HD 20:04) This feature covers the genesis of the story told by the writers and director of the film and their struggles to get the film made.
The Debut (HD 20:04) This one covers a lot of the same material as before, but it’s also a culmination piece to showcase where all this work has gone including press work and views of the premier.
Original Trailer (1:39): This trailer does a pretty decent job of explaining what’s going on in the film. It automatically continues to show the previews that were seen when the disc loads.
It’s really hard to review a movie that you really want to like, but ultimately don’t. You can go out of your way to find little things here and there to praise, but in the end - if they don’t add up to a compelling story, they just don’t make for a good movie. Sadly ‘White-Haired Witch’ falls because what I imagine is an abundance of cut footage. Scenes feel longer then presented and it makes me hope there is a different cut to enjoy. As it rests here, while Well Go USA has put together a beautiful HD transfer, a thrilling audio track, and an hour's worth of interesting behind the scenes footage - the movie itself just isn’t that great. This is one for the fans I’m afraid.