Wednesday, January 4, 2012

THE EAST IS RED #26: Like a Snake Devouring Its Tail

by Lisa Morton

Would that Hollywood was the only film industry in the world cannibalizing its own history over and over in a huge, neverending remake orgy. Sadly, it’s happening in Hong Kong, too, where the great cinematic fantasies of the last thirty years are now being regurgitated on screens all over Asia. The last few years have seen new versions of PAINTED SKIN, THE BUTTERFLY LOVERS, and (as previously reviewed in this column) A CHINESE GHOST STORY. And just as is often the case with their American cousins, these Hong Kong remakes have less to do with revitalizing old stories with a fresh generation of talent, and everything to do with the advent of plentiful, cheap CGI.

The latest culprit is THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE, essentially a remake of Tsui Hark’s 1993 classic GREEN SNAKE. I say “essentially” because the argument could be made that none of these films are remakes, since all are based on old, traditional stories. “The Tale of the White Snake” originally dates back to the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), and is considered one of the “Four Great Tales of China”; it’s probably been made into nearly as many different films and television series as, say, DRACULA has.

However, there’s really little doubt that THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE owes at least as big a debt to Tsui Hark as to the Southern Song Dynasty. For one thing, GREEN SNAKE was a somewhat radical re-imagining of the ancient story, putting more emphasis on the mischievous character of Xiao Qing, the green snake who has taken human form and accompanied her sister White in search of experience. Before that, Green was little more than a supporting character; in the original story, she’s described as White’s maid (although they are also said to be as close as sisters), and she serves mainly as, first, matchmaker, then the engine of vengeance when the evil monk Fahai imprisons the innocent White.
Wait…did I say “evil monk Fahai”? Isn’t that the guy Jet Li plays in this new version? Yep. So Jet Li’s a baddie?

Of course not.

In all fairness, I’ve never seen a cinematic retelling of “White Snake” in which the monk is really, really bad. “The Tale of the White Snake” probably started off as a simple story of good monk vs. evil snake demon, but over the centuries it morphed until the positions were reversed (modern Chinese scholars suggest this transformation was probably a response to the low positions women held in Chinese feudal society – virtually all of the traditional folktales now center on virtuous, heroic, determined women). In the most popular, modern version of the tale (and yes, certainly the current Chinese government would applaud something in which religion is denigrated and hard work is rewarded!), Fahai is the abbot of a local temple that’s fallen on hard times. Desperate to make money, he uses his magical abilities to bring a plague down on the local town, so he can turn a nifty profit by selling the cure. When the talented young herbalist Xu Xian and his transformed-snake-demon wife White show up in town and cure the plague instead, the furious Fahai decides to destroy their marriage.
Tsui Hark kept Fahai as the villain of GREEN SNAKE, but he made him into a more subtle and interesting antagonist. His Fahai (as played by Jet Li lookalike Zhao Wenzhou) was a warning against the dangers of dogma, a man so obsessed with his religion that he willingly destroys good if it doesn’t match his definition. GREEN SNAKE is really a meditation on the sensuality of life, and Fahai – the sexually repressed, angry fundamentalist – is the perfect villain.

In THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE, however, Fahai has been re-rendered into a hero, and herein lies one of the new film’s many problems. THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE isn’t all bad – in fact, it’s probably my favorite of the recent fantasy remakes. However, like the others, it’s hobbled by an over-reliance on CGI effects, which range from quite good (a herd of white fox demons) to embarrassing (giant snakes riding flood waters towards Fahai). It starts well, following Xu Xian (nicely played by handsome Raymond Lam), who has ventured into the mountains in search of herbs. When Xu Xian is spied on by two snake demons (who mimic GREEN SNAKE by giggling and cuddling together), mischievous Green (Charlene Choi, whose usual cute persona serves this part well) plays a joke on the young man that backfires, and he falls into a deep lake. He’s rescued by the serious and benevolent White (Eva Huang, probably the single best thing about this film), and given a long underwater kiss that director Ching Siu-tung used in 1987’s A CHINESE GHOST STORY. White is smitten by the herbalist, and follows him into town, helping him to achieve success by imparting some of her own healing essence into his medicines. When Fahai and his apprentice (a funny and sweet Zhang Wen) arrive in town searching out demons, they track down White and Green, and misunderstandings lead to mayhem. There’s a nifty subplot involving a bat demon and its minions attacking citizens during a festival, and how the poor apprentice nearly loses his first major battle with a demon. After Xu Xian finds out that his wife is a snake demon who gave much of her life essence to his cures and is now dying as a result, he steals a life-giving herb from Fahai’s temple, but in the process falls victim to a horde of evil spirits, and it’s up to Fahai to rescue him. Unfortunately, White and Green don’t see it that way, and a cataclysmic CGI battle ensues.

If that telling sounds light on character development or anything deeper than “true love conquers all”, that’d be a pretty accurate assessment. Don’t look for Tsui Hark’s sly commentary on religion or feminine power here; his film’s gorgeous, color-drenched design won’t be found here, either. THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE has a few of its own visual charms – the production designer was William Chang, known for his stunning work with Wong Kar-wai, and there are some spectacular sets, especially the interior of the temple, dominated by an immense Buddha – but it is continually undone by the over-reliance on metallic-looking CGI.
The cast is the best thing about WHITE SNAKE. Jet Li, of course, is always a solid central presence, but the surprise here is Eva Huang, taking on the role that Joey Wong played to perfection in GREEN SNAKE, and not only bearing an odd resemblance to Wong, but giving the role a wonderful gravitas and sympathy. She also does well in fights against Jet Li, which is undoubtedly no small accomplishment.

The best scenes in WHITE SNAKE are – surprise! – those that don’t involve (much) CGI, like Fahai’s entrance into the plague-ridden town, or White and Xu Xian’s submerged tryst. Of course with Ching Siu-tung (one of the great fight choreographers) at the helm and Jet Li as the star, we expect a few great fights, and there are some here…but you almost have to watch the making-of supplements, because in the actual film the incredible fight moves are sometimes lost behind – well, that frigging CGI.
While I would love to think that THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE might serve up some kind of warning to Chinese filmmakers about over-using CGI, I suspect it’s only going to get worse, and we can soon expect 3D to join the fray as well, what with Tsui Hark’s 3D IMAX sequel to his own 1992 film DRAGON INN. FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE opened last month in China to rave reviews for its CGI effects, so let’s hope it marks the start of a new trend.

(Note: If you’d like to read the original “Four Great Tales of China”, they are available in a nifty little paperback called WOMEN IN CHINESE FOLKLORE, published in Beijing in 1983. The translations are good, illustrations and commentary are included, and the book can be found cheaply online through such sites as .)

--Lisa Morton