The Sorcerer and the White Snake: Venice Film Review

Fantastic visuals and non-stop action make for a spectacular, romantic Chinese CGI feast.

An ancient Chinese fable about a woman demon who falls in love with a mortal is brought to life through the latest advances in CGI and action techniques.

As innocently childlike as its title, The Sorcerer and the White Snake is a visually lavish epic fantasy that happily marries the latest advances in CGI and action techniques with ancient Chinese fable and a Buddhist atmosphere. The story of a woman demon who falls in love with a mortal will ring bells for Westerners as a charming variant on Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid tale, though here the scaly mermaid is a huge, beautiful snake. With non-stop action to attract the lads, the tale is laced with enough overblown romanticism for ten chick flicks, yet chaste enough for children. Audiences with a taste for Chinese action spectaculars should enjoy this classy crossover from master Hong Kong director and action choreographer Tony Ching Siu-tung.

The international version screened out of competition in Venice contains several scenes featuring cute, animated talking animals that look like they stepped out of another film; they will have more scenes and turn into human beings played by well-known stars in the Asian cut.

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There’s no waiting for the action to start, no time lost in character development or other preliminaries. In the first five minutes, the powerful sorcerer-monk Fahai (a reassuringly imperturbable Jet Li), defeats a seductive-looking Ice Witch and instructs his comical disciple Neng-Wen to imprison her in the wall of a sacred pagoda high in the mountains. This is the first of multiple battles against a range of gorgeous demon temptresses, all of them strangely female, while the celibate demon-busters from Fahai’s monastery are all men. Coincidence?

Not really, as the principal demon is a lovely, willful white snake played by rising Chinese star Eva Huang. She and her equally entrancing sister snake, Green (Hong Kong actress Charlene Choi), lounge in their primeval fantasy forest, watching Xu Xian (Raymond Lam) and his friends scavenge the mountainside for medicinal herbs. When Green playfully assumes her giant python form and scares Xu Xian into falling into a river, White takes on human guise and saves him with a kiss he can’t forget.

After centuries of meditation, the sisters have become extremely powerful “demons”, but nothing can stop White’s longing to live in the human world with Xu Xian. At a fantastically lit Lantern Festival filled with fireworks and river floats, she reveals herself to the poor herbalist as the woman who saved his life on the mountain, and goes to live with him as his wife. This breaks a major taboo in Fahai’s world that prohibits demons and humans from consorting, and the monk sets about separating the two lovers.

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The impossibility of completely separating good and evil is a lesson the Sorceror learns at the end of the film, thanks to the great love White feels for her husband. But it’s a subtle message behind a loud and dazzling series of action sequences scripted and realized in fantastic CGI.  In one of the first, the Sorceror sparks a tumultuous battle with bat-demons and captures a fearsome flying creature that lives inside a volcano.  Later, he and his monks are besieged by white foxes who appear to them as seductive ladies who could have stepped out of a Vegas chorus line.

The final dramatic sequences take place inside Jinshan temple in the magical mountains, where the monks perform rituals and mantras to save Xu Xian’s life.  Prevented from entering the temple, the white snake stirs up a flood of Biblical proportions that even the Sorceror can’t arrest.  

Though the film allows for virtually no character development at all, it presses powerful emotional buttons every time Huang and Lam sing their love theme, generally with tears in their beautiful eyes. The ending is particularly cloying, but satisfying on its own level. 

Venue: Venice Film Festival (out of competition), Sept. 2, 2011.
Production company: Juli Entertainment Media
Cast: Jet Li, Eva Huang, Raymond Lam, Charlene Choi, Wen Zhang, Vivian Hsu
Director: Tony Ching Siu-tung
Screenwriters: Tan Zhang, Kan-Cheong Tsang, Cheuk-Hon Szeto.
Executive producers: Yang Zi, Wang Song, Wang Yue
Producer: Chui Po Chu
Director of photography: Venus Keung
Production designer: Zhai Tao
Music: Mark Lui
Costumes: William Chang
Editor: Angie Lam
Sales Agent: Distribution Workshop
96 minutes.