One of the best tropes of the Chinese Action movie was The White Haired Villain. My brothers and I loved this character. When we were kids, fake hand chopping each other in the back bedroom, I often got cast as the White haired Villain, whose Kung Fu was so much better than theirs, that my brothers had to team up to defeat me. (It’s okay. I was never harmed during these fake beat downs, as we made a point of only aiming at air. Just like the movies we emulated, we strived for authenticity.)
I tried really, really hard to find information on why there were so many White Haired villains in Chinese Martial Arts movies, and came up with zip.
Although I did come across this:
Apparently, no one has bothered to do any deep analysis on why this became a trope in the genre, although I have found plenty of lists of the White Haired Fox Villain, as he’s sometimes called.
I think the ascendency of this villain has been laid at the feet of a Shaw Brothers film directed by legendary Lau Kar Leung called Executioners of Shaolin, from 1977. The movie actually featured the character from Kill Bill, named Pai Mei and even had Pai Mei’s signature move, where he trapped Beatrix Kiddo’s weapon between his legs.
I do remember watching a Hell of a lot of these villains as a child, and I know all those movies were not about Pai Mei. So, I thought perhaps there was some cultural significance to having all those white haired villains. I looked up the meanings for the color white, Chinese culture and white hair, etc, etc. but I’ve since reached the conclusion that villains with white hair are just one of those things people have in movies. One of those cliches like “the fallacy of the talking killer”.
Its a way to make your villain look different without thinking too deeply about it, I guess. And Western movies are not immune, either. We have plenty of White Haired Villains of our own, from The Little Mermaid, Hellboy II, Batman Returns, Thranduil from The Hobbit, Immortan Joe from Mad Max, Sephiroth from Final Fantasy, Silva from Skyfall…Bladerunner, the remake of The Time Machine, Batman Begins and Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Spike..the list goes on and on.
Although the most famous Chinese Action movie White haired Villain in America is from the film The Bride with White Hair (1993) starring Brigette Lin and the late Leslie Cheung. You’ve got to check it out if you haven’t seen it and then be sure to back it up by watching The Heroic Trio.
Other than White being the symbolic color for death in some Asian Cultures, that was the only connection I could make between the color white and villainy. Which does nothing to explain the Western fondness for this trope.
Yep! Chinese movie-makers are not the only ones who have a love affair with white haired villains.
This trope is not to be confused with the Evil Albino. Some of these characters are not albinos. I know some people who have albinism object to this trope and that’s completely understandable. Nobody likes to be cast as evil, in every movie, all the time, which is seemingly the only time albinos get any screen time.
So, out of deference to those who object to the Evil Albino trope here’s a list of White haired Heroes, but only from comic books and anime. (I simply could not find good guys with white hair (apart from Storm) in any movies. So if you have any to add to this list, please feel free. Very light haired blondes are also acceptable.