Think of all of the jokes that you can regarding this movie’s title and discard them, for they are not in this movie.
Erm…sort of available online? Approximately 113 minutes.
Young Master Liu is to be married. His bride-to-be is to travel through the desert to get to his home. Unfortunately, the Young Mistress and her entourage are set upon by bandits. Peasant Kui is willing to die to protect the Young Mistress, and it appears that he will, but she intervenes and consents to go with the bandits.
When word gets back to Young Master Liu, he immediately goes to get a weapon rescue his bride…and just as immediately gets himself blown up. His mother, Madame Liu, is understandably distraught. She lost her husband twenty years ago and now she has lost her son.
Kui goes off in search of the bandit gang and eventually finds them. He begs the leader to give back the Young Mistress. Through appealing to superstition and a bit of lies, Kui manages to free her from the bandits, who turn out to be not quite so bad afterall. They treat the two of them kind of well.
In any case, Kui and the Young Mistress finally get to the house of Liu, only to find the place in mourning. Fortunately, Madame Liu still considers Young Mistress to be part of the family. She also lets Kui stay and calls him part of the family as well…though not literally. Unfortunately, Madame Liu has the need to keep up appearances, and is not going to let the fact that she no longer has a living son get in the way of that. So, what is she going to do?
So…that is about as far as I am willing to go in terms of plot summary. One may ask where the wooden man enters into the story. The answer is a little under halfway through the movie, and the viewer might not figure out that it is a wooden man until actually halfway through. The title The Wooden Man’s Bride is simultaneously spoilery and somewhat misleading. The titular bride is probably the second lead out of three, with peasant Kui being the main lead and Madame Liu being the third. The original title is actually Wu Kui, which is more accurate, but less attention-getting. It is basically the name of the lead. Also, the tagline on the DVD cover is not exactly incorrect, but it is also misleading. That tagline and the English title made for a rather confusing viewing during the first half of the movie, but I found myself enjoying it once I decided to let go of my expectations.
This not a sweeping romance or a hijinks comedy. This one of those dark historical dramas that came out of China in the 1990s, though maybe not quite as bleak as a few others, and the creepy music makes it almost seem like a horror movie. It is a story about class and gender roles, with both Kui and Young Mistress being held prisoners by their respective places in society. Officially, Young Mistress should have some power in the household, being the widow of the late Young Master, yet her duties as a wife and daughter-in-law have become warped and supercede pretty much all of the perks that she may have had. In the household, the mother of the husband has total authority over her daughter-in-law, and no treatment is considered mistreatment. At the same time, the “power” of the daughter-in-law comes from whatever punishment for her wrongdoings falling upon her subordinates, and the threat of that becomes just one more method of keeping her in line.
Despite the…song…at the beginning of the movie, this is not a marriage of love, but an arranged marriage; one between relatively high-born people. There is one young woman among the servants who could have been marriage material for the Young Master, had that ever been considered, but it probably was not. Also, the lowborn Kui is frequently warned to steer clear of the Young Mistress, even as his job explicitly calls for him to frequently interact with her.
Madame Liu seems like a sympathetic character after her son dies, but it becomes quite a bit more difficult to do so once she decides to keep going with the marriage even when the groom is gone. Young Mistress starts feeling more and more humiliated, but Madame Liu does not seem to care. After all, she just lost her son and has spent twenty years as a widow. To her, Young Mistress is being spoiled and unladylike. Relations between mothers and daughters-in-law in Asian societies are not necessarily known to be great, but this one has the added challenge of there not having been a son in the picture to intervene. Even with a movie that had started with bandits, Madame Liu emerges as the main antagonist. At the same time, she is just as much a prisoner to society as the other characters below her. Though we do not see much of it, this is a fairly significant community that she is a part of. People look up to her and watch her; they judge her. She has been held up to a high standard of chastity and has to maintain that standard. She has to maintain her reputation, otherwise she is nothing. She has no husband, and now she has no son. All she has left is this willful daughter-in-law who could ruin everything that she had spent two decades working on.
Though not as depressing as its Chinese contemporaries, this movie is pretty grim in its portrayal of how tradition and societal pressure can trump both reason and the heart. The solution that the movie provides at the end is not really ideal and is more like just another in a series of desperate acts that can only lead to more desperate acts later on, but it seems almost poetically justified. Maybe. If you think that you can make it to that point, then I recommend this movie. Even if you are not sure, I would still recommend it.
WTF ASIA 90: Boat (South Korea: 2009, approx. 115 minutes)
WTF ASIA 91: Parched (India: 2015, approx. 117 minutes)