The opening scene & the opening scene alone of The White Dragon (Fei hap siu baak lung, 2004) is in imitation of Yimou Zhang's House of Seven Daggers (Shi mian mai fu, 2004) bamboo forest fight sequence, which in turn was borrowed from King Hu's Touch of Zen (Hsia nu, 1971).
I was so thrilled to see something influenced by better stuff than the usual kitschy cartoony CGI-dominated wuxia that has come to dominate the genre in the wake of Tsui Hark's fantasy epics. I figured, even if it isn't as good as its influences, it'll be better than average!
With an excellent musical soundtrack, fight choreography that swells with dancers' gracefulness, & rich use of color & costume, The White Dragon is a feast for the eyes & ears.
However, it is not the visually serious entity it seems to be in its first few moments, & very quickly turns into a comedy wuxia, impossible to take with the seriousness of King Hu or Yimou Zhang.
The humor is, at least, legitimately funny, so as a comedic epic with first-rate visuals, it is above all entertaining.
Floutist & swordswoman Little White Dragon (Cecilia Cheung Pak-Chi) has become a bounty hunter, though when she was a child she never imagined she'd become a member of jiang-hu "the martial world."
She loathes violence because if you lose, you're dead; if you win, there's revenge; & if her nose gets mashed or her face scarred, she will never have a good life with a wealthy husband. Nevertheless, jiang-hu is the place she has come to.
She's after a fellow known as "Blindie" & as "Chicken Feathers" (Francis Ng), a blind swordsman of extraordinary skill. Their fight in the bamboo forest is incredibly beautiful even though self-consciously imitative.
When Little White Dragon realizes Chicken Feathers is too much for her to defeat, & she's liable to be killed or scarred, she says to herself, "Too bad he's blind. Or he'd fall for me." On the cusp of her defeat, we enter a flashback, seven days earlier:
She's a lady scholar, Phoenix (or Black Phoenix), with no fighting skills nor much scholarliness for that matter. She has a shallow view of life, but likes herself & a life quite a bit, so has no reason to change or grow.
She hangs out with other girl students, careful that she is the most beautiful of the group, with Tsui Yee very pretty but definitely less attractive than herself, Tien Guk a bit overweight, & Tung Mui cross-eyed. Her vanity requires that she alone be the outstanding beauty.
Phoenix & her girlfriends have a small musical band which uses traditioinal instruments, on which they play goofy rock 'n' roll, as the film, set during the Ming Dynasty, enjoys modern references if they're funny (watch for MacBeanBuns). Their act even has a lute-smashing climax & leap into the audience. The depths of silliness does mar the story somewhat, but have to admit, made me laugh.
Black Phoenix has a crush on the Emperor's second son Tian Yang (Andy On). As second-prince has taken notice of her band, she is certain her great physical beauty is going to net her just the man she likes. How could she know life was about to impose heroic deeds upon her vain & selfish existence?
A powerful older woman known as White Dragon (Nay Suet) is a bounty hunter who has long tried to arrest Chicken Feathers. She tried again to catch him on the night he murdered the perverted headmaster of the girls' school.
Alas she was mortally wounded, & believing she will soon be dead, "downloads" her lifetime of martial skills into her niece, Phoenix, who becomes Little White Dragon without having to waste any of her life bothering to study martial arts.
Luckily the older bounty hunter didn't die after all, but by then her powers were invested in the shallow girl, whose character Auntie must now reform so that only chivalrous deeds will come of Phoenix's new strengths & skills.
She hates her new powers which have given her zits. Auntie says good deeds cause blood to flow & zits to heal, so Phoenix should use her martial skill to rob wealthy people then give the spoils to the poor. She flies about robbing individuals of wealth & dropping the money among impoverished families, & her complexion indeed improves.
One day she is rollerblading around the palace with Tian Yang the second prince. She plays flute & lute for him. Things are really going her way, & she doesn't have to think too much about the martial world.
But then a pile of chicken feathers is found in the palace. It's the calling card of, who else, Chicken Feathers, & it pretty much announces that he intends to assassinate someone in the royal house.
Thus on the seventh day of her newfound powers, Little White Dragon has her duel in the bamboo forest. Chicken Feathers certainly could have killed her, but spares her life upon her promise never to come after him again. But you can't trust the promise of a shallow girl who has been a warrior for only seven days.
Their second duel is much more on the level of comedy. when she kicks him in the balls, he's so strong in that location that she broke her leg. He nurses her in a grudging way until she heals.
Chicken Feathers is annoyed by the constant presence of the selfish Phoenix, but discovers he is in love with her flute playing. She is helpless while her leg is healing but he won't feed or clean or do anything for her unless she first plays him a tune before each thing he does to assist her.
Their bickering interplay is sweetly amusing, full of whimsical peevishness with one another, but also undeniable & burgeoning fondness.
Chicken Feathers' real name is Gai, meaning "Chicken." He's childlike in many ways. He hires out his immense skills to kill people only if they're bad men who deserve death. He saves the money in a box, awaiting the day when he has enough to pay a leading physician to cure his sight.
Despite the film's obsession with whimsy, it has poetic passages that are lovely. The uneven mood causes shifts from the dumbest possible jokes to such sweet moments as when Phoenix helps Gai "see" the stars by playing her flute under a starlit sky.
Eventually it's undeniable; he's fallen in love. But does Phoenix still desire Second Prince? Could she, the self-important beauty, ever fall for a blind guy who can't even see how beautiful she is? Who is not wealthy & cannot provide for her like royalty?
When she is healed & returns home, Second Prince proposes marriage. He is a good man through & through & he loves her, strictly apart from everything his royal house could mean for her & her whole family.
A crisis of emotion erupts, quite a dilemma, as she knows two great men, one poor, one with everything.
Her prince charming's elder brother begins murdering innocent blind men hoping to get Chicken Feathers. Gai turns himself in, in order to save others, & First Prince Tian Sheng (Lei Liu) beats him horribly before dragging him into court.
Phoenix tries to intervene & she'll come forth as Little White Dragon if the princes fail to pardon Gai. Little White Dragon & First Prince engage in ferocious battle over the life of Chicken Feathers.
In the end, which man she marries is not Phoenix's choice to make after all. With First Prince's infamy revealed, it is Second Prince who will be Emperor. This destiny renders him no longer in a position to marry whoever he wishes. But he can crown Phoenix as "Constable Little White Dragon," law-enforcer for the empire.
Frances Ng is moving & convincing as the Zatoichi-like sensitive killer, & Cecilia Cheung's journey from self-involved shallow babe to chilvalrous heroine, for all the comedic take, is a true Quest type story of personal growth.
It's a lovely film really, romantic without being sappy, legitimately heroic without being dufus slap-happy chop-sockiesque, & comedic without losing sight of the importance of character.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl