Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Sorcerer and the White Snake (白蛇傳說之法海 / Bai Se Chuan Shuo Zhi Fa Hai)

Seduction of the Monk

It's not just Hollywood that's looking at fabled legends to adapt from, or to remake/reboot films from the past. Cinema in the Chinese territories are doing so as well, revisiting material that will probably benefit in having CG effects to spruce up storytelling. Tony Ching Siu-Tung directs this update of a film that chronicles the romance of a White Snake spirit and a mortal man, which of course is forbidden by lore, and a monk who goes between them. Tony is no stranger to martial arts fantasy films with a few already under his belt, such as notable flicks like Swordsman III and the Chinese Ghost Story series, which coincidentally also got remade by Wilson Yip recently, so we're in good hands for what would be a broad based special effects extravaganza that unfortunately had its hokey moments.

Those familiar with the White Snake fable will find some broad elements that resemble that tale being told here, such as Madam White Snake Su Su (Eva Huang) who with her sister Qing Qing the Green Snake (Charlene Choi) chanced upon the poor though honest herb collector and aspiring healer/physician wannabe Xu Xian (Raymond Lam). In summary here, she rescues him, and they fall in love and got married after what would be a whirlwind romance, with the man none the wiser that his wife is a snake demon, though a benevolent one whose only objective is to be with the man of her dreams. And as proof, she sacrifices her centuries old inner strength to help him make medicine on the sly to save a plague stricken town.

Cue Jet Li who plays the demon buster Reverend Fa Hai, who together with his assistant Neng Ren (Wen Zhang) form a team to rid the earth of any wandering spirits and demons, banishing them to what would be the equivalent of a phantom zone through a mirror stored in a pagoda. The opening scene of the film sets the expectation of what this duo is capable of, with Fa Hai naturally being the more experienced and highly skilled catcher, versus his more bumbling protege in here for tragic comedy, in a big bang special effects extravaganza as they go up against Vivian Hsu's cameo appearance as a demon decked in flowing red robes. Soon enough Neng Ren will form yet a smaller romantic subplot with Qing Qing, while Fa Hai could be looked on as the true nemesis in the film for his adamant stubbornness in wanting to break up Xu Xian and Su Su, and destroy the latter for yet another feather in the cap for a job well done.

Curiously, this version of the Madam White Snake story seemed to want to adapt the Disney formula, where you'd have smaller animal sidekicks that talk pop up now and then to try and lighten the mood, or play pivotal roles for the protagonists. Voiced by Miriam Yeung, Lam Suet and Chapman To, their characters do seem to have lines lost in translation, and may have been dubbed over in Mandarin, which if true is very much a pity, and a case against dubbing. And true to Disney's formula as well is the general lack of blood in its action, which reportedly had Jet Li do more kung fu poses than he would have imagined necessary, but the romantic core of the film definitely took a backseat when the filmmakers decided to focus on martial arts and special effects to wow an audience.

Which isn't a bad thing when you extrapolate its message to talk about how an older generation dead set and stubborn in their ways sometimes fail to allow what they're prejudiced about to continue with their knowledge. It isn't enough to not meddle in other's affairs, but it's necessary to eradicate something from even existing, which is exactly what Fa Hai did during his initial big fight with Su Su that ended with a warning that if he should see her again the gloves would be off, and the next thing you know he's assembled his disciples to go snake hunting in an ambush of her home.

On the effects front, it's time to sit up and take notice what the Asian effects company are finally able to pull off since the days of terrible rendering seen in True Legend. Entire landscapes get designed on computer, though at times still not as refined, but definitely a step up from years back. While certain shots were unfortunate rip-offs from films such as 2012 with its massive floodwaters overwhelming huge mountains, there were others that more than made up for its lack of originality, and the bamboo forest, which all self respecting martial arts film must feature, had an interesting spin thanks to effects bringing to life something I've yet to see involving fox spirits and bamboo shoot hideouts and seduction.

And if copying is a form of flattery, then whatever Zack Snyder did in 300 with its stylistic fights, have been done to death in other films and this one as well, with its slow motion, spin around being prominently over used, that I would have given up an arm for a straight fight between the exponents, which couldn't be possible since Jet Li's the only bona fide martial artist, with the rest being posers with heavy reliance on wire work. Even the climatic battle between Fa Hai and two snakes looked very much like D-War's and Endhiran's, with effects making the sparring session look very much epic.

I would have liked a stronger story that provided more focus between Madam White Snake and Xu Xian, but that is something to be found in predecessor films. This one clearly is focused on Fa Hai the monk himself (with the Chinese subtitle obviously meaning so), and is about his enlightenment on love, an emotion he's oblivious to given his career path. And not to forget as a calling card for the numerous effects companies.


YTSL said...

Hi Stefan --

I've been curious to check out this version of the White Snake legend but was almost put off by a friend of mine who definitely like this film as much as you. (This same (American) friend also described the special effects as awful.)

Your review has rekindled my interest to check out the film that sees, for the first time, Jet Li playing a character that was earlier played by Chiu Man Cheuk rather than the other way around. Thanks -- I hope. :)

Stefan S said...

Hi again YTSL!

If put against Hollywood standards then yes it will be awful, but I thought it was a marked improvement from True Legend, which frankly didn't warrant effects of that scale, if not to accommodate Jay Chou's presence.

Hope you enjoy the film for what it is, but this is not the film that will properly tell the White Snake legend, since its focus was clearly on the battles, making the story very peripheral just to get to the next fight, or SFX shot :P

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