After I watched DR. WAI IN “THE SCRIPTURE WITH NO WORDS” for the specific reason that it was a Jet Li movie directed by Ching Siu-Tung, I realized I should watch the more recent movie that fits the same description. THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE (2011) is another fantasy martial arts romance, outlandish in a different way than the other one because it’s based on a Chinese legend about animal demons.
Li plays the titular sorcerer, a truck trying to carry explosives across a shaky rope bridge, and of course Whitesnake play themselves, performing many of their hits as well as debuting songs from that year’s album Forevermore. At least I assume that was what Ching intended, but he caved to the bean-counters, so instead Li plays a skilled Buddhist demon hunter called Abbott Fahai, and early in the movie we are abruptly confronted with the sight of two beautiful human lady torsos with scale-covered breasts and giant snake body lower halves, rolling around sexily on top of each other. It’s one of those things where I’m kind of icked out by it but also very happy for whatever number of people there are out there who are into snake ladies and are sorely underserved by mainstream cinema. Merry Christmas, you pervs.
Anyway, they seem to be going at it, but I guess they’re supposed to be sisters frolicking. The green snake is Quingqing (Charlene Choi, THE TWINS EFFECT, TWINS MISSION) and the white snake is Susu (Eva Huang, KUNG FU HUSTLE, DRAGON SQUAD). They’re spying on some humans climbing a mountain to find herbs, and Quingqing decides to go play a prank on them – appearing in giant snake form to hiss at young herbalist Xu Xian (Raymond Lam, SAVING GENERAL YANG), scaring him so bad he falls off the mountain into the water.
Susu has a conscience and/or thinks Xu Xian is a cutey, so she switches to human form and resuscitates him in the form of a romantic underwater kiss. And then it becomes a thing where she comes into civilization in human form and courts him, but he rejects her at first, thinking he’s in love with this person he doesn’t quite remember who saved his life. (Rather than tell him “That’s me, stupid” she knocks him into the water and does it again.) Tagging along, Quingqing befriends Abbott Fahai’s assistant Neng Ren (Wen Zhang, THE GUILLOTINES, THE MERMAID), who luckily is bad at using his little dial that detects demons.
Well, maybe not lucky, because he doesn’t notice the ENTIRE BOAT FULL OF LADY BAT DEMONS that Quingqing casually points out to him. This leads to one of the better action sequences, when the Abbott flies in and leapfrogs across a succession of boats, including several canoes that are mid-air after being launched by a big wave. He and Neng Ren battle a swarm of humans with with bat wings as well as a more monstrous digital character. That part seems kinda like a Hong Kong take on VAN HELSING.
Xu Xian and Susu end up getting married, but he doesn’t know she’s a snake demon, and those type of secrets are not good for marriages. So the scene where Fahai attacks her and she turns into a snake and he sees it is kind of like somebody walking in on their wife straddling some dude. Luckily he forgives her, but only after accidentally stabbing her with a magic dagger (you know how it is) so it becomes a quest to get a rare magic root that will heal her.
The style of the movie is a little schizophrenic. Much of it has a very clean digital look that seems chintzy compared to Hollywood movies. For example, in the opening scene Abbott Fahai and Neng Ren step out into a blizzard and battle an ice harpy (Vivian Hsu, THE ACCIDENTAL SPY) and it’s all extremely green-screeny, with an FX-based battle where Li and his doubles are spinning a staff around and doing moves, but the frame drops, flying and ice beam FX make it seem like it’s pretty much an animated movie. (It’s also one of those movies that is very clearly designed to take advantage of 3D.) But then it cuts to some beautiful actual locations, and the lantern festival sequence looks like a huge set on a soundstage – it kind of feels like a Disneyland ride, which is a compliment.
I love the unashamed way movies like this present their mythological reality – it’s so different from the west, where artists fear straying from realism and the literal. Ching, of course, has no such hangups. Not long after he’s given us “Yes, they are sexy half lady/half snakes who can turn into a snake or a lady, fuckin deal with it, buddy,” he also has a computer animated turtle, rabbit and mouse just walk in (upright, but they’re regular animal sizes and not humanoid at all) and start talking, like it’s normal. I wasn’t sure if they were also demons and could turn into people, but they never did, so I decided they were just animals. The mouse continues to be a major character throughout the movie, treated as a peer with the demons and humans. (He should get a spin-off buddy movie with the puppet rat mutant from DR. WAI.)
Apparently there’s some part I didn’t pick up on with a “Chicken Devil” played by the great Lam Suet. I don’t know if this means I wasn’t paying enough attention or if it’s one of those Easter eggs. They don’t have Easter in Buddhism, though.
The story spends more time on the melodrama of the young lovers than on the Abbott, but Li’s performance is good and it’s a pretty interesting character. Rather than killing demons he catches them in little pots like he’s an ancient Ghostbuster, and he keeps them imprisoned in his pagoda, with the promise that if they meditate and improve themselves they can be freed. This seems pretty enlightened at first, but when we meet the snakes we realize that it’s still unfair to assume that every demon is evil and deserving of this kind of punishment. They’re just creatures trying to live their lives, and they should be able to slither around doing what they want, they shouldn’t have to hide out at Midian or something to be safe from guys like him. So, while being well-intentioned, he sort of becomes the antagonist.
And SPOILER due to these events he does learn that his attitude toward demons has been too rigid. I like that it ends on a sweet little character moment – Fahai throwing Neng Ren an apple and talking to him as a friend even though he’s been turned into a bat-demon.
Much of this movie looks beautiful, and some of the stuff that looks cheesier is bizarre enough to still be appealing. But there are definitely points where the digital look is off-putting to me. I can imagine myself being much more drawn into its operatic emotions if it was one of those soft-focus ‘90s Hong Kong fantasies like THE BRIDE WITH THE WHITE HAIR. (I guess I’ll have to check out Tsui Hark’s GREEN SNAKE, a 1993 variation on the same legend.) Still, I gotta respect a movie with the line, “Before I met you I meditated for a thousand years, but those thousand years were worth less than a moment with you.” That’s some passionate love shit only a snake demon could say. I bet you don’t get that in, like, a Nicholas Sparks movie. (I don’t think I’ve seen any, though, so correct me if I’m wrong.)
Original title 白蛇傳說之法海 (THE LEGEND OF WHITE SNAKE – creating problems for the eventual VH1 biopic). It was at one point advertised as ITS LOVE.