Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.
All the same comic book mythology elements as so many other post-Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain wuxia films, A Chinese Ghost Story, Swordsman II and Ashes of Time in particular, but director Ronny Yu slows the pace down, both in plot and editing, which allows more time to take in the phantasmagoric visuals (Hong Kong blues and reds dominate of course) and the pure melodrama of the doomed romance plot. Li Han-hsiang's 1977 Dream of the Red Chamber (an early starring role for Brigitte Lin, seen here at the pinnacle of her career) similarly revels in tragedy, spending most of its final half on just a few scenes as the lovers lament the forces that have led to their destruction, teasing out the anguish to epic lengths. Something similar is at work here, mounting a different kind of sensory assault than the Tsui Hark-Ching Siu-tung whiplash school (as in Ching and Johnnie To's Heroic Trio films, also released in 1993). Yu appears to have conceived this as less a wuxia film (though it takes place in the world of flying Wu Tang swordsmen and enchanted Siamese twin devils) and more a purely tragic romance, a Romeo and Juliet tale, but with demons and magic and stuff.
Set at the end of the Ming Dynasty, the invasion of the Manchurian Qing forms the background for the tale (though it could just as well have been set 1500 years earlier, at the dawn of the Qin Dynasty for how ancient its world seems). Leslie Cheung is the favored student of the head of the 8 Clans, a confederacy of martial arts organizations (he's part of the, ahem, Wu Tang Clan). But, as he tells us in wistfully voice-overed flashbacks that were a Cheung trademark, he's a more sensitive and romantic soul than the hardened warriors that surround him, barely interested in joining in the Clans' various wars (versus the Qing as well as more supernatural enemies). When he meets Brigitte Lin, a Wolf Girl (literally she was raised by wolves), they fall in love, despite the fact that she's the top assassin for the Evil Cult (a name which I assume sounds better in Chinese), which are bent on destroying the 8 Clans.
Lin and Cheung spend a lengthy idyll together in a cave under a waterfall, frolicking and sucking out poison and making grand pledges to the gods and the elements. But eventually they must return to their respective sides and ask to be set free so they can withdraw from worldly wars and just hang out together, possibly somewhere dry. This leads to the film's greatest (only?) act of heroism, as Lin walks out of the Evil Cult, across hot coals and through a gauntlets of murderous savages beating her with sticks (she's not allowed to use her kung fu, she has to leave like a normal common person). But, tragically of course, Cheung does not match her commitment. He returns home to find most of the rest of the Wu Tang slaughtered, including his master. Everyone assumes Lin did it (because she's the assassin for the Evil Cult) and when Cheung asks her and she denies it, he doesn't believe her. As is to be expected, this act of betrayal, of faithlessness on Cheung's part, turns Lin into a witch with ghostly white hair which she then uses to kill all the rest of the Wu Tang.
Even still, she returns at the end to save Cheung from the Siamese twins. The film ends inclusively (there was a sequel, directed by David Wu, released later a few months later in 1993). Cheung had been telling us the story ten years in the future, where he's apparently spent the intervening decade sitting on a melancholy rock waiting for a magic flower to bloom, quietly singing pop ballads to himself, and thinking about how terrible men are. The credits roll over highlights from the movie we've just seen, Cheung's song on the soundtrack, a flashback of a flashback.