Love of the White Snake (Chen Chi-Hwa, 1978)

I don’t seek out movies based on the White Snake story because I know that none of them could live up to Tsui Hark’s bizarre, beautiful 1993 movie, Green Snake, my favorite Hong Kong movie (and, for the record, I love Wong Kar Wai, King Hu, Ann Hui, and others more typically considered “good” film makers). For this reason, I’ve not seen the early 60’s Shaw Brothers spectacle, Madame White Snake, despite the presence of the gorgeous Linda Lin Dai and Margaret Tu Chuan -- to boot, Glenn at “A Pessimist is Never Disappointedreviewed it recently, inspiring little confidence. But I also love how Brigitte Lin looks in her earlier films, before Hong Kong film makers cast her almost exclusively as either a frigid killer or a gender-ambiguous sword fighter. She’s so young and pretty in Love of the White Snake that I almost managed to not compare the film to Tsui Hark’s for those moments that she’s on screen.
And boy does Miss Lin see a lot of screen time, much of it in close ups. Director Chen Chi-Hwa clearly knows his assets. I might have watched Love of the White Snake earlier had I known Chen directed the film. Chen is hardly a good film maker, much less well-renowned, known best for directing early Jackie Chan movies like Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin and Half a Loaf of Kung Fu (both made the same year as his White Snake). But he’s also dependable, even competent. As far as his resources can take him, Chen actually produces a pretty decent rendition of the White Snake legend.
The basics of the story remain intact: two female snake spirits come to the human world to take a human husband and get a leg up on the wheel of reincarnation. Taoist and Buddhist priests try to split them apart, even as the snake spirits prove themselves more humane than those dedicated to the cultivation of transcendent virtues, resulting in tragedy.
As with any film of this vintage and origin, Love of the White Snake promises bad special effects to the sort of viewer who likes such things, usually achieved through sound cues, bad editing, and uneasy optical printer work. No disappointments here, on that account: the snake transformation scenes rival those in Killer of Snake, Fox of Shaolin (Man Wa, 1978) for the least convincing in Chinese language cinema. But Chen isn’t really trying to make a wild special effects spectacle; he’s making a gently tragic fantasy movie that doesn’t challenge its intended audience, one no doubt already familiar with the story he’s retelling.
As gentle fantasy, Love of the White Snake soothes more than it excites. Slapstick humor tends to undercut conflict throughout the film, at least before the finale. Tsui Hark’s Green Snake (I can’t stop myself from comparing; I’m sorry) imbues the tale with moral dissonance and uncertainty by shifting the perspective to White Snake’s sister/confidant, Green, and by questioning or interpolating various motivations and characterizations. Characters in Chen’s film dismiss moral ambiguity, for the few times that the script addresses the possibility, by citing the depth of their love or their devotion to a code of conduct. Chen’s camera treats sensuality in a most Confucian manner, which is to say, not at all.
But, for all of its inconsequence and its abundant flaws, Love of the White Snake is entertaining light viewing. The locations are all rather familiar -- I’ve seen that zig-zagging white trimmed bridge in everything from Ninja in the Deadly Trap (Phillip Kwok, 1981) to The Last Duel (Ling Yun, 1981)-- but they look pretty good under cinematographer Chen Ching-Chu’s lens. Director Chen and cinematographer Chen seemingly studied King Hu when composing establishing and tracking shots. I mean this as a compliment.
This movie contains no surprises for a viewer who knows what to expect from an impoverished Taiwanese fantasy movie. I do suspect that viewers who like those movies will either be delighted or put-off by the film’s less hyperactive approach compared to others in its genre, depending on the reason why they enjoy such movies. It’s okay, but it just really isn’t as good as Tsui Hark’s Green Snake. And, geez, Brigitte Lin sure is pretty.
By the way, you can watch this movie for free (and quite a few others as well) at Chinese video streaming site, youku.


  1. Agree that Brigitte Lin really was very pretty back in the 1970s.

    Re "Love of the White Snake": I have a VHS tape of the film but, alas, it doesn't have English subs. Is that the case with the version of the film available on youku?

    Also, have you seen "Ghost in the Mirror" -- another supernatural fantasy movie in which she stars? Parts of it got me thinking of "A Chinese Ghost Story" (a Tsui Hark-produced -- though not directed -- movie).

  2. Hey, YTSL

    The youku video has embedded subs, which are better than nothing. The cropping is rather questionable too.

    I saw Ghost in the Mirror a long time ago and should probably watch it again. I remember that The Illuminated Lantern had a review of Li Han Hsiang's Enchanting Shadow that compared it to A Chinese Ghost Story (they're based on the same literary source).

    80's/90's Hong Kong cinema seems really different from what came before until you sit down and actually watch something like Enchanting Shadow or Ghost in the Mirror at the same sitting as something like A Chinese Ghost Story. In some cases, they even have the same actors, albeit in different roles

  3. Hi again GoldenPigsy --

    Yeah, know what you mean about 80s/90s Hong Kong cinema actually not having come from nowhere. E.g., Tsui Hark really drew his inspiration from a lot of old movies -- and old tales from China too. :)