Though it treads ground that’s by no means new to Chinese cinema, “The Wooden Man’s Bride” offers hugely entertaining melodrama coupled with potent emotional pull, a firm grasp of Hollywood-style pacing and narrative conventions and a non-stop blitz of visually ravishing spectacle.
One of the Rotterdam fest’s most rousing crowd-pleasers, this handsomely crafted Taiwan production from mainland Chinese helmer Huang Jianxin could eat up a greedy slice of the mainstream arthouse market with the right push.
Pic reps a pronounced (and, to some, disappointing) directional swing for Huang after the acutely observed contempo comedy of his 1986 debut pic “The Black Cannon Incident.” But the director seems equally at home with this stirring historical folk tale of violent uprising against cruelly oppressive tradition.
Set in the 1920s in a remote part of northwest China, simple-minded worker, Kui (Chang Shih), is enlisted to carry the bride of an arranged marriage (Wang Lan) in an eye-popping wedding procession. Attacked by marauding bandits, he defends her fearlessly, but the bride gives herself up to save his life.
News travels back to her intended groom, and in his haste to rescue her, he sets off an explosion that kills him. Kui storms into the kidnappers’ hideout, where he touches a chord in the recently bereaved bandit chief (Taiwanese pop idol Kao Mingjun), prompting him to release them unharmed.
Back at the groom’s family mansion, the bride gets an icy welcome from his mother Madame Liu (veteran Wang Yumei). Determining that she’s still worthy of her dead son, Madame Liu arranges a solemn wedding-cum-funeral ceremony, pledging the young bride to a carved wooden man to ensure her ongoing fidelity.
The bride’s attempts at rebellion and escape are harshly punished. She befriends Kui, and kindness soon turns to passion.
Perfs by the thwarted lovers are finely wrought, but pic’s thesping strength lies in the supporting ranks. Wang Yumei regally plays the bitter dowager as a complex tyrant, firmly convinced her actions are the only available course. Also memorable is Wang Fuli as her fanatically devoted housekeeper, and Kao is a knockout as the effeminate, opera-singing head bandit.
With all the rich pageantry, intricate ceremony, sweeping landscapes and full-tilt epic quality on view from scene one, pic cries out for widescreen. Zhang Xiaoguang’s stately lensing nevertheless looks consistently arresting, if a little crowded, on standard 35mm. “Bride” is the first feature to be shot in mainland China on 100% Taiwan coin.