Chinese New Year Films: The Year of the Snake

11 Feb

I always try to watch a suitable Hong Kong film on the first day of the Lunar New Year. Since this year is the Year of the Snake (and I was born in the Year of the Snake), I chose THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE (2011), a fairly new version of the famous Chinese folk tale of “the Legend of the White Snake” and the fifth film version of this tale in my DVD collection and the only one I hadn’t yet seen. It’s a Chinese-Hong Kong co-production and the only actors in it who were familiar to me were martial arts star Jet Li (in the role of the stern monk, Fahai) and singer-actress Charlene Choi (formerly a member of the Cantopop singing duo, the Twins), in the role of Green Snake.

In a nutshell, this legend tells the story of two snake sisters, White and Green, who take on human form after several centuries of training (a full millennium for White, only half that for Green), with the White sister falling in love with a young wandering scholar, Xu Xian, and setting up housekeeping with him, while Green sets out to explore the human world on her own. Fahai is a Buddhist monk who seeks to rid the world of demons and sets out to send the snake sisters back to their world. At some point, one of the two lovers, depending on which version you see, dies or is seriously wounded, and the other one has to climb an island cliff to find a special herb that will cure their partner. A spectacular battle with Fahai ensues, involving mountains of sea water, with the two lovers eventually being reunited (or not, depending on which version).

The previous film versions that I own copies of are the following:

MADAME WHITE SNAKE (1956/Japan) Director: Shiro Toyoda. Star: Shirley Yamaguchi.

HAKUJADEN (1958/Japan, aka LEGEND OF THE WHITE SNAKE, aka PANDA AND THE MAGIC SERPENT—U.S. release title) Animated. Director: Taiji Yabushita.

MADAM WHITE SNAKE (1962/Hong Kong, aka BAI SHE ZHUAN) Director: Yueh Feng. Stars: Linda Lin Dai, Margaret Tu Chuan. Producer: Shaw Bros.

GREEN SNAKE (1993/Hong Kong) Director: Tsui Hark. Stars: Joey Wang, Maggie Cheung.

As I recall, the two earlier live-action versions (1956 and 1962) are notably short on special effects and focus entirely on the two lovers and their story. I don’t recall much about the 1956 version, which stars Shirley Yamaguchi, the co-star of Sam Fuller’s HOUSE OF BAMBOO from the previous year, which I wrote about here on August 12, 2012, but it was pretty low-key, despite being one of Japan’s earliest color movies. The 1962 Hong Kong version with Lin Dai is done in the “Huangmei Opera” style, in which much of the dialogue is sung. I reviewed it on IMDB and my views were decidedly mixed. Here’s the link:

Madam White Snake

I have the animated film HAKUJADEN in two versions: a Japanese-language-only DVD of the original Japanese print, and a VHS copy of PANDA AND THE MAGIC SERPENT, the cut, English-dubbed version. This was the first true Japanese animated commercial feature film and is generally considered the beginning of anime as we know it and was certainly the start of the animation industry in Japan. This version has songs and comical talking animal characters, including a panda and a red panda, the devoted pets of the young scholar, and a pig who runs an animal gang that the pandas eventually join. It’s all quite beautifully animated and designed but, in a bid by the animators to slavishly copy the Disney style, the animal characters tend to dominate the proceedings and shift the story away from the lovers for long stretches. The English dub used Asian-American performers, including Lisa Lu (see my blog entries of Jan. 8, 2013 and June 30, 2012) and Miiko Taka (SAYONARA).

Arguably, the best version of this story, at least among these five, is Tsui Hark’s GREEN SNAKE (1993), which is filled with imaginative special effects, achieved largely through wire work and mechanical methods, in real time and in front of the camera. It also features two decidedly more sexually aggressive snake sisters, as portrayed so vigorously by Joey Wang and Maggie Cheung, which adds a distinctly erotic flavor to a number of scenes. This is easily the most exciting and entertaining of the versions I’ve seen.

Maggie Cheung as the title character in GREEN SNAKE

THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE focuses on the love story between Susu (White Snake) and Xu Xian, a young man who is not exactly a scholar here, but more of an itinerant herbalist, who is called on to treat victims of a plague at one point and is given crucial aid by Susu, who has become his wife. Green Snake has a romance of her own with Neng Ren, a young monk who’s the sidekick of Fahai. In a novel touch, Neng Ren gets bitten by a bat demon (who looks like something out of European horror lore) and slowly transforms into demon form himself, which only encourages Green Snake’s affections even more. (This subplot is treated comically.) When Susu lies sick and dying, from a dagger wound delivered to her while in snake form by her unsuspecting husband, Xu Xian goes to the island pagoda where a special “spirit herb” is found and must retrieve it to treat his wife. Fahai and his disciples follow him and continue the battle with demons there.

The film contains several action and special effects sequences, including a lively one early on in the midst of a lantern festival where Fahai leaps along a string of boats and bridges in a canal to pursue with great speed the aforementioned winged bat demon and rescue Neng Ren from his clutches. There’s a group of female fox demons later on who have begun killing residents of a village by sucking out their life force, forcing Fahai and his army of disciples to chase them into a bamboo forest and battle them with magical tools. The big climactic finale involves the flooding of the pagoda and a battle between various forces there over the soul of Xu Xian.

Interestingly, this version includes a number of CGI-created talking animal characters, harking back to the cartoon animals in PANDA AND THE MAGIC SERPENT. In one clever scene, Susu recruits her animal friends to take on human form and act the roles of her parents and family to give Xu Xian the permission he needs to court and marry Susu. The turtle and white rabbit play the roles of her parents, and a monkey, a frog, and a chicken become other family members, with all the roles played as cameos by prominent Hong Kong actors. It’s an amusing scene, but it could have been played for laughs rather than chuckles, if only a little more comic imagination had been put into its creation. Instead, the filmmakers seem to think the idea alone is all that’s needed and fail to develop any real gags out of it.

Later on, a helpful rat, joining Xu Xian on his mission to find the spirit herb, leads an army of rats to break the human chain of monks keeping the now-demon-possessed Xu Xian a prisoner. As a New York resident, I take a dim view of rat behavior, no matter how “heroic” their antics may be deemed.

The special effects are largely done with CGI. If you watch the “Making of” feature that is included on the DVD, you’ll see numerous scenes of actors suspended on cables in front of green screens. (Jet Li seems to have done most of his role this way.)

The CGI is generally well done and some of the images are indeed quite spectacular, such as the early scenes showing the snake sisters.

The big problem for me is that there was no real imagination at work in most of these sequences. The effects served their function, but I never got the sense that I was seeing anything new or exciting. These sequences didn’t seem to have the emotional content these scenes used to have in Hong Kong film, a sense of characters being challenged, transcending their limitations, and accomplishing something in their battles. There was no feeling of relief or satisfaction at the end of these sequences. There was also way more CGI than was necessary. For instance, we see White Snake in full-on snake form much more than we needed to. The snake form was always subtly suggested in past versions rather than explicitly shown, creating more magic in the viewer’s mind that way.

I kept thinking back to all those Hong Kong “wire-fu” extravaganzas of the early 1990s, many of which also starred Jet Li and many of which were directed by this film’s director, Tony Ching Siu-Tung. These include KUNG FU CULT MASTER, SWORDSMAN II, SWORDSMAN III: THE EAST IS RED, DRAGON INN, ROYAL TRAMP II, and, of course, the aforementioned GREEN SNAKE. The effects in those films were generally done by mechanical methods, in front of the camera, in real time, usually with life-sized props, but occasionally using miniature sets. When the actors flew across a courtyard in Ancient China, you knew that that actor was really flying across that set (suspended on unseen wires, of course) and really landing on that pagoda terrace. When characters in SWORDSMAN III leap up and remove the sails from Japanese and Spanish warships to fly across the water, the result was breathtaking. I’d never seen anything like that before. In film after film, there was something that made my jaw drop. There’s nothing comparable in THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE. And I suspect that’s the case with a lot of CGI fantasies coming from Hong Kong/China these days.

Brigitte Lin as Asia the Invincible in SWORDSMAN III: THE EAST IS RED:

Thankfully, though, the film concentrates on the love story between Susu and Xu Xian and in this regard it succeeds admirably. I believed in this couple and was enthralled by their tender love scenes together, something that was not always convincingly portrayed in past versions. The dialogue in these scenes is quite eloquent as well.

Eva Huang, who plays Susu, is very beautiful and looks truly enchanting in closeup when she smiles lovingly at Xu Xian. (Today, Feb. 11, is her 30th birthday.) To the film’s credit, the makers seem to have understood how charismatic she is and give her a lot of closeups. I’m not familiar with the actress, although she appeared in KUNG FU HUSTLE (2004). If she’s the one who played the object of Stephen Chow’s affections in that, then I remember her quite well and was impressed with her in that one as well. This is the first film I’ve seen with Raymond Lam, who plays Xu Xian, and he’s quite good. One of the things that makes their relationship work so well in the film is that we see them doing things together, such as the scene where he mixes herbal potions to administer to plague victims and Susu secretly breathes some of her own life essence into the potions to give them added power and help her husband out, at great cost to her own health. This is also a novel touch and adds something to the emotional core of the film and the whole concept of sacrifice for love. The ending is more tragic here than in some of the other versions.

The subplot involving Green Snake and Neng Ren (Zhang Wen) is not given as much attention and is not as well handled. There are long stretches without these characters. (I’m a fan of the Twins and was eager to see more of Ms. Choi.)

There’s a lush romantic soundtrack by Mark Lui, who’s scored other films I like, including Tsui Hark’s THE LOVERS (1994), a remake of the famed “Butterfly Lovers” tale. Lui’s score in that one reworks the famous “Butterfly Lovers” concerto by Chen Gang and He Zhanhao to great effect.

Jet Li is starting to look his age here (he turns 50 on April 26 of this year), which suits the role of the dour monk quite well. It’s funny watching him laughing in the “Making of” footage as he contends with the cables and flying scenes that are old hat to him by now.

I enjoy the story of the Legend of the White Snake and the different film versions, with my greatest affections going to GREEN SNAKE and HAKUJADEN. It’s always nice to see a new take on this classic tale. I just hope the next one brings something fresh and imaginative to the table. I’m now eager to re-watch the other versions and do a full-scale comparison.

Happy New Year!

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