China, 2011, colour, 2.35:1, 102 mins. (China version), 96 mins. (international version).
Director: Cheng Xiaodong 程小东 [Tony Ching].
Uncomplicated chunk of Chinese legend, with plenty of CGI, action and entertainment.
Ancient southern China. After battling the Ice Witch (Xu Ruoxuan), who has sworn eternal vengeance against all men for their unfaithfulness, Buddhist monk Fa Hai (Li Lianjie) imprisons her soul in Leifeng Pagoda, where his pupil Neng Ren (Wen Zhang) is also based. Meanwhile, two sisterly snake demons, the white Bai Suzhen (Huang Shengyi) and green Qingqing (Cai Zhuoyan), are surveying the human world at their leisure when Bai Suzhen rescues young herbalist Xu Xian (Lin Feng) from drowning. Both fall for each other. Qingqing is annoyed at Bai Suzhen’s love for a human, but agrees to tag along with her as they both change into female form to find Xu Xian again. In the meantime, he has met Fa Hai and Neng Ren, who are hunting down vampire-bat demons that have been causing death and destruction in the region. All five meet up in a canal town during the Lantern Festival, during which Fa Hai and Neng Ren fight some vampire-bat women but fail to kill their leader, the Bat Demon. Next morning Neng Ren wakes up to find he’s starting to change into a bat after being bitten during the battle, so Qingqing, who’s come to like him, reveals she’s a demon too. However, Fa Hai lets both both Bai Suzhen and Qingqing know that he will not tolerate demons and humans falling in love, and he’ll kill both of them unless they disappear.
The much-varied Chinese legend of the female White Snake, her sisterly companion Green Snake and the Buddhist monk who seeks to prevent them becoming romantically involved with humans gets a full-scale, 21st-century CGI workout in Its Love 白蛇传说. Funded by a Mainland company but largely put together by Hong Kongers, it’s a different kettle of fish from previous versions, with none of the staginess of Shaw Brothers’ operatic Madam White Snake 白蛇传 (1962) nor the sheer sensuousness of the much later Green Snake 青蛇 (1993), directed by Xu Ke 徐克 [Tsui Hark] and starring Zhang Manyu 张曼玉 [Maggie Cheung] and Wang Zuxian 王祖贤 [Joey Wang]. Like most of the movies of Hong Kong action maestro Cheng Xiaodong 程小东 [Tony Ching] (A Chinese Ghost Story 倩女幽魂, 1987; An Empress and the Warriors 江山美人, 2008), it’s an uncomplicated mixture of stunts, setpieces and local elements aimed directly at an East Asian audience, with no special depth to the characters or their emotions and a plot that’s simply there to keep the action coming. Combining Mainland and Hong Kong names, smooth special effects (especially for the two snake women) and a tight running-time of just over one-and-a-half hours – thank you, editor Lin An’er 林安儿 [Angie Lam] – it’s a professional, entertaining package but with no special signature to make it a must-see.
As the Buddhist monk who’s rigidly opposed to any contact between humans and demons – even snake demons in pretty female form – Li Lianjie 李连杰 [Jet Li] is now of an age and bearing to convincingly play such authoritarian characters. Hong Kong’s Cai Zhuoyan 蔡卓妍 [Charlene Choi] is well cast as the younger, peskier Green Snake and has good comic chemistry with Mainlander Wen Zhang 文章 (who previously played an autistic son to Li’s father in Ocean Heaven 海洋天堂, 2010). But despite Li topping the bill, the movie is basically a showcase for Mainland actress Huang Shengyi 黄圣依, 28, who debuted in Kung Fu Hustle 功夫 (2004) and has more recently become a favoured employee of Its Love funder Juli Entertainment Media. As the White Snake who falls for a naive young herbalist (TVB contractee Lin Feng 林峰 [Raymond Lam], adequate), Huang has the looks and charisma to handle a good/evil role like this and only needs to develop a warmer screen presence to back them up. When she and Cai are on screen together, the latter still steals the show.
The copious visual effects, which dominate the movie’s second half with floods and water battles, are especially good for the two snake women – smooth and silky without becoming overtly sensuous. But it’s where the CGI is properly integrated with live action that the movie takes off, as in a battle between Li’s monk and some female vampire-bat demons in a crowded canal during the Lantern Festival. In this section, the richly coloured styling by Zhang Shuping 张叔平 [William Chang] combines with Cheng’s action direction for genuine fun and thrills, all backed up by a heroic symphonic score from Lei Songde 雷颂德 [Mark Lui].
The Mandarin print that premiered at the Venice film festival was an “international” version, shorn of one sequence in which some 3-D animated animal characters – that distractingly pop up here and there in the film – briefly appear in human form, played by Hong Kong names such as Yang Qianhua 杨千嬅 [Miriam Yeung], Du Wenze 杜汶泽 [Chapman To] and Lin Xue 林雪 [Lam Suet].
In Hong Kong the film had the English title The Sorcerer and the White Snake.
Presented by China Juli Entertainment Media (CN). Produced by China Juli Entertainment Media (CN).
Script: Zhang Tan, Zeng Jinchang, Situ Zhuohan [Szeto Cheuk-hon]. Photography: Jiang Guomin [Venus Keung]. Editing: Lin An’er [Angie Lam]. Music: Lei Songde [Mark Lui]. Title song music: Choi Jun-yeong. Title song lyrics: Chen Shaoqi. Vocals: Huang Shengyi, Lin Feng. Art direction: Zhai Tao. Styling: Zhang Shuping [William Chang]. Costumes: Li Bijun [Lee Pik-kwan]. Special make-up: Beijing Cinemorph. Sound: Hou Xiaohui, Wang Gang, Cheng Xiaolong. Action: Cheng Xiaodong [Tony Ching], Huang Mingjian. Special effects: Guo Shizhen. Visual effects: Ryu Heui-jeong, Yi Chung-bok, Huang Hongxian, Luo Weihao (Younggu Art Studio, Stingray Studios, Menfond Electronic Art, Different Digital Design). Underwater photography: Lin Deming. Flying-Cam: Remi Epron. Postproduction supervision: Lin An’er [Angie Lam].
Cast: Li Lianjie [Jet Li] (Fa Hai, master), Huang Shengyi [Eva Huang] (Bai Suzhen/White Snake), Lin Feng [Raymond Lam] (Xu Xian), Cai Zhuoyan [Charlene Choi] (Qingqing/Green Snake), Wen Zhang (Neng Ren), Jiang Wu (Tortoise), Xu Ruoxuan [Vivian Hsu] (Ice Witch), Yang Qianhua [Miriam Yeung] (Rabbit), Du Wenze [Chapman To] (Toad), Lin Xue [Lam Suet] (Chicken), Tang Yingying (Cat), Wang Yi’nan (Monkey), Li Dan, Bai Hailong, Wang Shengli, Zhang Wenjun (Four Disciples).
Premiere: Venice Film Festival (Out Of Competition), 2 Sep 2011 (international version).
Release: China, 29 Sep 2011.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 4 Sep 2011, as The Sorcerer and the White Snake.)