Few movies interest my father. The last one we saw together was District 9, and he slept through most of that. Recently, however, he’s gotten hooked on historical films, starting with Roman sagas (Gladiator, Spartacus) then moving on to Chinese epics (An Empress and the Warriors). He came across The Sorcerer and the White Snake on YouTube. After being told the story twice, my mom and I plunked ourselves down in front of a laptop to share the experience. We even had popcorn.
Forbidden love. It’s the oldest tale in the world (save perhaps for creation stories). As with Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” a non-human heroine saves a mortal from drowning, thus earning his love. It’s easy enough to believe. But while a princess falling in love with a prince (the first one she sees) seems a matter of course, that’s not the case here. I don’t see why the White Snake Susu (Eva Huang) feels attracted to a poor herb-gatherer like Xu Xian (Raymond Lam). She and her demon-sister Qingqing (Charlene Choi), the Green Snake, have spent centuries observing humans, so why does she fall for this particular one? Are we to pin it all on their exchange of “vital forces” (via the life-saving kiss)? Are we to believe that a thousand-year-old demon can find no other way to un-drown a mortal than by kissing him? Unlike the mischievous Qingqing, Susu is defined only by her love for Xu Xian, and even he has better characterization: a good-hearted physician devoted to helping others. A little backstory on why Susu would find that kind of personality endearing is necessary to building up their relationship.
Halfway through the movie, Susu and Xu Xian hold a mock-marriage ceremony, but of course someone hinders their happily ever after. As a monk committed to exorcising demons, Abbot Fahai (Jet Li) finds their union intolerable. Although my sympathies lay with the couple, the antagonist’s portrayal still stood out: It’s clear that Fahai’s not a wicked magus—just someone with principles to uphold, responsibilities to fulfill. My favorite moment is when he addresses a plea to Buddha during a moment of apparent defeat: “I have been a dharma defender all my life… Why did the calamity happen instead? Have I been too stubborn? Was I really wrong?” This might be asking too much, but I wish the film had explored this theme further. The conflict already dances on the line between good and evil, but the ending’s deus ex machina sweeps all that under the rug—or more accurately, beneath the roiling waves of the sea.
Although it’s apparently famous, I didn’t know about the Legend of the White Snake until this movie, and for that I am grateful. Forbidden love is an oft-told tale in many cultures, but each retelling remains exquisite and inexorably sad. With such material to draw from, the film could have been more successful had it focused on themes of love and religion rather than on its much-criticized special effects, which appear more cartoonish than real. Legends persist because they possess universal resonance. In the hands of the right person, they can be shaped into films that resonate with the fragility of time and the endurance of passion. Unfortunately, it’s clear that the White Snake has not found such an adaptation here.
‘My friends said I’d imagined her, but I’m quite sure she was real, because she kissed me so deeply. That kiss saved my life. In a way, it also took my life.’