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“Sorcerer and the White Snake” has been one of the more hotly anticipated Chinese releases of 2011, and it’s not hard to see why, given the talent in front of and behind the camera. Boasting an impressive US$25 million budget and premiering at the Venice Film Festival, the fantasy production stars Jet Li in the lead as a Buddhist monk, butting heads with Eva Huang (“Kung Fu Hustle”) and Twins’ Charlene Choi as snake demons, with Raymond Lam (“Jade and the Pearl”) and Wen Zhang (“Ocean Heaven”) as the two young men caught in the middle, plus cameos by from the likes of Vivian Hsu, Miriam Yeung, Chapman To and Jiang Wu. Directed by legendary helmer and action choreographer Ching Siu Tung, responsible for numerous genre classics including “Swordsman”, “A Chinese Ghost Story” and others, the prestigious film was produced by Yang Zi and Chui Po Chu (“Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”, “Confucius”) and written by Hong Kong scribes Tsang Kan Cheong (“Shaolin Soccer”) and Szeto Cheuk Han (“Mr. Vampire”).
The film follows Eva Huang as white snake demon Bai Suzhen, who one day when fooling around on a mountain spots and takes a liking to mortal herbalist Xu Xian (Raymond Lam). Saving his life after green snake demon Qingqing (Charlene Choi) plays a trick on him, Suzhen finds herself falling for the kindly man, and takes on human form so that they can live together as man and wife. In doing so, she meets with the disapproval of Buddhist monk Fahai (Jet Li), who spends his days hunting demons along with hapless helper Neng Ren (Wen Zhang). When Suzhen refuses to reveal her true identity to her unknowing husband, the monk takes steps to try and keep them apart, enraging the demon and setting tragic events in motion.
Drawing from the same ancient Chinese folk tale, ‘“Sorcerer and the White Snake” unsurprisingly has more than a little in common with Tsui Hark’s 1993 classic fantasy “Green Snake”. However, Ching Siu Tung’s take on the myth is a far more commercial blockbuster type affair, aiming to cover as many bases and achieve as wide an appeal as possible – which it certainly succeeded in, having ranked as one of the biggest Chinese box office hits of the year. To this end, the film packs in a great deal of action, romance, comedy and even family friendly cutesy talking animals, all brought to life with a non-stop parade of computer generated special effects. Thankfully, Ching Siu Tung is an old hand at this kind of thing, and he prevents the film from ever getting too scattershot, focusing mainly on the unconventional romance between Suzhen and Xu Xian, or more specifically on her desire to try and live as a normal human. Worked into this are a number of different subplots, including some daftness involving her animal spirit family, a demon plague that strikes a nearby village, and Neng Ren’s clash with a bat demon and his budding relationship with Qingqing. There’s certainly a lot going on throughout, and this helps to keep things interesting and moving along at a decent pace.
Sadly, despite the generous budget, the special effects might politely be described as being of variable quality, ranging from some nicely done fantasy landscapes through to some hilariously awful looking demons, most notably the half snake bodies sported by Eva Huang and Charlene Choi, which float most unconvincingly in the air and seem to be entirely unconnected to their heads and chests. Still, the film definitely wins points for effort, with Ching Siu Tung showing a great deal of imagination in creating the film’s magical world and orchestrating some ambitious large scale set pieces, especially during the final act. These provide an often exciting injection of epic spectacle, and the film does feature a great many visually striking moments, enough so to help overlook some of its shoddy computer work. There’s a fair amount of martial arts action involved, primarily between Jet Li and Eva Huang, and though this mainly involves the two flying through the air rather than getting down to actual fisticuffs, it again works well to keep things entertaining.
A lot of the film’s overall sense of fun comes from the cast, all of whom are on good form. Although Jet Li doesn’t have a great deal to do in acting terms, he slips into the older grumpy sifu role with great ease, and is very enjoyable in the role, bringing back fond memories for genre fans of Lam Ching Ying and Wu Ma as he stomps around advising anyone and everyone that humans and demons don’t mix. Eva Huang is surprisingly good as the female lead, offering a slightly more complicated white snake, lovesick, arrogant and vengeful rather than the sappy creature than might have been expected. As a result, her relationship with Raymond Lam is oddly affecting despite his rather bland nice guy persona, and the film is reasonably moving towards the end. Charlene Choi and Wen Zhang both manage a few sparks of their own in roles which largely amount to comic relief, with their bouts of flirting and mischief adding a few playful laughs along the way.
All of this comes together pretty well, and “Sorcerer and the White Snake” is definitely one of the better big budget Chinese fantasy themed films of the last couple of years. Surviving some bizarrely lacklustre special effects work thanks to some solid handling and creative action sequences by Ching Siu Tung, the film is an enjoyable genre outing that benefits from a fine cast, and in particular from the presence of Jet Li, who despite getting visibly older is still great value on screen.
Siu-Tung Ching (director)
CAST: Jet Li … Abott Fahai
Shengyi Huang … White Snake
Raymond Lam … Xu Xian
Charlene Choi … Green Snake
Zhang Wen … Neng Ren
Vivian Hsu … Snow Goblin
Miriam Yeung Chin Wah … Rabbit Devil