THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE
(Bai She Chuan Shuo)
The traditional Wu Xia died away towards the end of the 1990s, about the time that Hong Kong went back into Chinas hands. A funny thing then started to happen. First there was the success of The Matrix (1999) where the Wachowski Brothers copied Wu Xia moves with extraordinary effect. This was followed by Ang Lee wowing the whole world by reinventing the genre as art in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). This saw the Wu Xia genre taken over by Chinese producers who delivered films on much more lavish budgets than the originals with the likes of Zhang Yimous Hero (2003) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), and other efforts such as The Banquet/Legend of the Black Scorpion (2006), The Butcher, The Chef and the Swordsman (2010), 14 Blades (2010), Reign of Assassins (2010), True Legend (2010), Wu Xia (2011), The Grandmaster (2013), The Monkey King (2014) and League of Gods (2016). Directors from the original Hong Kong fad were employed with Tsui Hark making Seven Swords (2005), Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010), Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011), Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (2013), Journey to the West: Demon Chapter (2017) and Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings (2018). and A Chinese Ghost Story director Ching Siu-Tung (hiding behind the more Anglicised name Tony Ching) here.
The Sorcerer and the White Snake is based on the Chinese legend Madame White Snake/Legend of the White Snake. The story originated out of oral tradition and was first published in 1620, having been told in a number of different forms since, including being adapted into an opera. The story sets down the essential basics involving the two demon spirits White Snake and Green Snake, White Snakes becoming romantically swayed by the mortal scholar Xiu Xian and the Abbot Fahais determination to despatch them back to the spirit world. The story has been filmed a number of times as a Japanese adaptation Madame White Snake (1956), a Japanese anime Panda and the Magic Serpent (1958) and a Hong Kong-made opera adaptation Madame White Snake (1962). The most well-known film version was Tsui Harks Green Snake (1993), a lush playful version made at the height of the Hong Kong Wu Xia tradition. This is yet another the only question that one has about the English-language title The Sorcerer and the White Snake is that there is no sorcerer in the film.
The sporadic number of Wu Xia made since Hong Kong went back to China have been marked by a sweeping lushness due to the increasingly bigger budgets afforded by Chinese funding. These are works that seem intended by China for international arthouse and festival audiences rather than pitched to the populist pulp of the earlier Hong Kong films. (One surprise about The Sorcerer and the White Snake given its Chinese backing is the strength of the Buddhist themes, which are far more prominent than they ever were in most traditional Wu Xia). The other notable thing that is evident in efforts such as The Storm Riders (1998) and Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame is how modern Wu Xia is increasingly taking on board the CGI revolution. This reaches its most extensive use here, although with mixed effect. Some of the effects are uneven especially when it comes to the giant snakes engaged in combat. Moreover, it makes Wu Xia seem too easy it was a good deal more amazing watching combatants take to the air and bounce around rooms when you knew it was all being conducted by wire work and choreography whereas with CGI you know that anything is possible and it starts to seem less impressive. On the other hand, Ching Siu-Tung adapts to this is in unique ways that allow traditional Wu Xia to blossom.
Ching Siu-Tung uses the opportunity afforded by the CGI to fill the film with images of the two snake sisters drifting through impossibly Edenic landscapes. He really opens the film up during the sequence with Jet Li pursuing the bat demon where we see Li cruising through the canals of the town on a small boat that seems propelled by his Buddhist awesomeness alone whenever he stands in the prow and then pursuing the demon up into the air by bouncing off the roof of the temple, grabbing its tail and flying off through the mountains and down into Hell, before he despatches it to triumphantly land in a pose on a rock in the midst of a pit of lava. The bigger budget allows Ching to throw in some gloriously fantastical images Zhang Wen sporting a pair of bat wings to appear and snatch Charlene Choi away from peril; Jet Li walking through the plague-ridden town and casting a magic dust that allows him to see through the walls as the demons crouch on the bodies of the dying sucking up their lifeforce, before luring the fox demons away and he standing calmly as they mob over and try to seduce him in female form; the climax with Jet Li and Shengyi Huang battling, she wielding vast tsunamis around his meditating form before he manifests golden Buddha hands that snatch her up and then build a pagoda up from the dirt in which to imprison her. Especially magnificent is the image of the temple flooded, the monks sitting around the altar underwater holding their hands trying not to break the chain as they meditate to deliver the demon possessing Raymond Lam, while outside the giant White Snake tries to batter in but is kept away by a prayer pasted across the door, before an army of mice come up through the floor and free Lam.
On the minus side, Ching draws on the goofy humour of Hong Kong cinema, which seems dated served up in 2011 scenes with Shengyi Huang on a pagoda where she uses her tail to destroy the pier to abandon her and Raymond Lam in the middle of the river and force him into her arms, or the scenes as Charlene Choi tries to encourage Zhang Wen in his transformation into a bat creature. The funniest scene is where Shengyi Huang invites Raymond Lam back to meet her family so he can obtain their permission to marry him where the family are played by other animals spirits who have a disconcertingly funny habit of reverting to animal form at the most inopportune moments.
Ching Siu-Tungs other films are:- Duel to the Death (1983), The Witch from Nepal/The Nepal Affair (1985), A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), A Chinese Ghost Story II (1990), A Terracotta Warrior (1990), A Chinese Ghost Story III (1991), New Dragon Gate Inn (1992), Swordsman II (1992), The Heroic Trio (1993), The Heroic Trio II: Executioners (1993), The Mad Monk (1993), Swordsman III: The East is Red (1993) and The Scripture With No Words (1996). Siu-Tung is also known as an action choreographer par excellence and has coordinated sequences on films like Shaolin Soccer (2001), Invincible (2001), Hero (2003), House of Flying Daggers (2004) and In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2007).