Judge Erick Harper says no laughing at the title, Beavis.
She defied a thousand years of tradition for one moment of passion.
The Wooden Man's Bride is a product of the Chinese film renaissance of the 1990s, along with such other critically-acclaimed successes as Raise the Red Lantern and Farewell My Concubine. That's what the back of the box says, anyway. It seems that in the early '90s, the Chinese government decided that the rest of the world should see at least a few feet of film shot in China that didn't involve pro-democracy protestors being run over by tanks and corralled like cattle.
Many of the best Chinese films of this period deal with the position of women in China's highly formal, traditional, male-dominated culture. The Wooden Man's Brideis no exception, delving into a world of arranged marriages and family obligations that bind with a force greater than any law.
Facts of the Case
Kui (Chang Shih) is part of a caravan charged with transporting the Young Mistress (Wang Lan) to her arranged marriage with the Young Master of the Liu family. Along the way they are attacked by bandits who capture the Young Mistress and haul her away to their hideout. Kui, through bravery and wits, manages to free her and delivers her as promised. Alas, it is too late; upon hearing of her capture, her intended was preparing his guns to attack the bandits himself when he managed to blow himself up. However, a deal between families for an arranged marriage is still binding even after death, so the Young Mistress must marry a wooden effigy of the deceased and must keep her chastity intact for the rest of her life.
In gratitude for his service, the Liu family also hires Kui to work in their tofu manufacturing business. He watches the Young Mistress from afar, quietly reaching out to her in sympathy as she suffers her ridiculous fate. Their relationship blossoms into a romance until Madame Liu (Yumei Wang) discovers them together.
The greatest strength of The Wooden Man's Bride is in its subtlety. Dialogue is used sparingly, and the filmmakers do not feel the need to have the characters explain every last detail of every last action in the film. Part of this, of course, is due to the cultural programming that members of its original Chinese audience would naturally carry. Part of it is due to Asian cultures in general being less forward and blunt, and more context-oriented. Beyond the details of culture and custom, however, there is a refreshing assumption that we the audience will figure out what is going on, that we will understand character actions and motivations without endless stilted reflections and expository dialogue.
As a result of this leaving things to be understood rather than stated outright, The Wooden Man's Bride is a film that requires some concentration and commitment on the part of the viewer. Great acting performances help us along in this regard, especially Chang Shih as Kui. Kui is a simple man, a man of few words, a man very concerned with doing what is right and proper and avoiding dishonor to himself and his family. Still, even he, a creature of tradition and propriety, cannot remain blind to love nor the plight of the Young Mistress. Perhaps Shih's best moment comes early on in the film, when he enters the bandit stronghold to demand the release of the captured bride. We get the honest feeling that although Kui is not a smart man, and although he really has no plan for getting the bandits to release her, his simple faith in his own honesty and the integrity of others will win the day.
Much has been written about the visual flair with which Jinxing Huang directs this film. It has an epic feel to it that matches the deliberate pace of the story. Many have rightly compared the look of this movie, with its wide shots of forbidding desert leading to hardscrabble oases of human activity, to John Ford westerns. Huang's direction carries a sense of time and the timelessness of the customs his film presents. The use of long takes and long shots along with the sparseness of the dialogue help build the sense that this story is as ancient and timeworn, but also as immediate and relevant, as any fairy tale.
Video quality on this Koch Lorber disc is disappointing. First of all, the film is presented in full frame rather than its original theatrical aspect ratio. This is especially maddening after watching the opening credits, which are properly presented in a letterbox image that looks to be roughly 1.85:1. The picture that we do get is fairly clear for the most part, but demonstrates some of the worst edge enhancement and pixelation that I have seen in quite some time. There is a lot of outdoor cinematography in this film. The DVD format still seems to choke a bit on something as simple as a blue sky; this is especially true in a low-quality transfer such as this, which yields some extremely noisy skies. This also translates to some very soft, fuzzy images in outdoor scenes. Color fidelity is pretty good, but seems to tend to the red end of the spectrum a bit too strongly. The picture seems a bit dark at times, with some oversaturation of blacks and any areas of slight shade blending into a seamless, inky darkness.
In contrast to the video, the audio quality is a pleasant surprise. Presented in a Dolby 5.1 mix, the original Mandarin soundtrack shows quite a bit of life and good clarity, and even shows some solid signs of life in the surround channels from time to time.
Extra content, such as it is, consists of two unimpressive trailers for this film and a collection of trailers for about six other Koch Lorber DVD releases.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For a film that seems to be challenging the status of women in Chinese society, The Wooden Man's Bride forced the Young Mistress to remain disappointingly passive throughout. She must wait for others around her such as Kui to take action, and she remains reactive rather than proactive. On the other hand, one could argue that she is simply practicing the subtlety that women have always practiced in repressive societies, the same subtlety that has led to their vilification as manipulative and calculating. The Young Mistress simply cannot do as she pleases within the confines of her highly restrictive society; instead, she must motivate Kui to take action on her behalf.
Koch Lorber does us all a service by releasing relatively obscure, high-quality films such as this one. Without their efforts, we might never have seen this film. On the other hand, it would be nice if they would take a bit more time to do their DVD releases justice. A full frame release, with dodgy video quality, and no supplements or explanatory information whatsoever, is not the treatment that this film deserves. The decision to go full frame is particularly galling. Who do they think is going to buy this disc? Certainly not the anti-widescreen cinema illiterate crowd looking for "family friendly" aspect ratios. The sort of people that take the time to hunt down a little-known gem like The Wooden Man's Bride are precisely the sort of people who are going to be ornery about getting a disc with the incorrect aspect ratio.
The Wooden Man's Bride is an intriguing period drama with just a dash of action and suspense in the right places. It's valuable for what it says about Chinese culture in particular, but also about gender relations and family politics in general.
Not guilty! This is a fascinating story well told thorough great performances and direction.
Koch Lorber remains on probation until they can prove they understand what film fans really want from DVD releases of intelligent foreign films.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
• Theatrical Trailers
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