Tuesday, February 4, 2020
THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE (2011)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical*
I've never read, even in translation, the classic Chinese legend "Legend of the White Snake"-- which was apparently the literary version of a famed folktale-- but I've seen two film adaptations and an American-made novel, so I'm familiar with the broad outlines of the story. In essence, the narrative boils down to a love story between a mortal scholar and a female snake-demon, whose romance is cut short by the interference of a rigorous, and perhaps overly righteous, Chinese monk.
Abbott Fahai (Jet Li) can perform a great variety of magical feats, but one would hardly call him a "sorcerer," as the American title does. Given that sorcerers are often depicted as traffickers in dark magic, Fahai is closer to an exorcist, since he and his assistant monk Neng travel around expelling demons when they impinge on helpless humans. In contrast to the other versions of the legend I've seen, WHITE SNAKE devotes much more time to showing a variety of vicious demons, executed through a combination of CGI and wire-fu. Considering that director Ching Siu-tung began working on Hong Kong fantasy-films back in the eighties and nineties, before CGI came into its own, it's amazing that WHITE SNAKE does so well using computer-animation.
While Fahai and his comedy-relief assistant gambol about hunting for demons, two female snake-demons, Susu (Eva Huang) and Qingqing (Charlene Choi), happen to spot a human physician, Xu Xian (Raymond Lam). Qingqing decides to manifest in front of him, so that he takes a fall and plunges into a lake. Susu, more kind-hearted, goes in after him and saves his life with a Kiss of Life. However, by so doing, she infuses Xu with her own essence, and after that, she falls in love with him. She later masquerades as a human being and marries the scholar without divulging her real nature. (One version of the legend has her get pregnant, but WHITE SNAKE doesn't go there.)
Neng is bitten by a bat demon, which transforms him into a similar creature, thus putting him outside Fahai's reach. Nevertheless, Neng remains basically beneficient, and ends up befriending the rash Qingqinig. Fahai discovers that Xu has married a snake demon and attempts to expel Susu. Xu is understandably confused by the revelation that his wife is a snake, and doesn't resist when Fahai attempts to exorcise the demon essence from his body. Susu, aided by her sister and various animal-demons, mounts a frontal assault upon Fahai's temple-- one of the movie's strongest FX scenes-- and Susu pits her formidable magical powers against those of the monk.
Though Xu temporarily forgets Susu, his memory comes back just slightly before Fahai seals the snake demon beneath the temple. As in other versions, Fahai expresses regret for his actions once he realizes that Susu's love for her husband is real, but he remains determined to confine her demon nature for the greater good. I appreciated this take on the story, as other versions have tended to gloss over the malefic nature of Chinese demons generally.
Despite all of the action sequences this is still a romance, and thus Xu and Susu are the main stars of the story, for all that Jet Li's name is the only one that has international sales-potential.