The Sorcerer and the White Snake (Tony Ching Siu-Tung, 2011)

Although it is generally known under the title for The Sorcerer and the White Snake, the title card for Tony Ching Siu-Tung’s latest film has the English title “Its Love,” which sounds not a bit unlike a really cheesy telenovela – the kind which my mom used to watch on the Spanish language television networks, much to my dissatisfaction, when I was a kid. Like “Asi el Amor” or something. It’s actually a fairly appropriate comparison, as The Sorcerer and the White Snake features enough soft focus and lingering close ups of beautiful people casting longing looks just past the camera to fill a week’s worth of episodes of the goofiest Mexican soap opera.
It’s the latest cinematic version of the White Snake legend, a story about a snake demon who takes human form after a thousand years of meditation, falls in love with a mortal man named Xu Xian, and marries him. As this violates the natural order, fanatical Buddhist Fa Hai seeks to split them apart. Motion picture renderings of this legend run the gamut from the quaint, like the Shaw Bros. Huangmei styled Madame White Snake, to the utterly bonkers, like Phantom of Snake, which places the story in 2000 AD Hong Kong. They vary about as widely in quality as well.

The Sorcerer and the White Snake is one of the growing number of made-for-China films from old-guard Hong Kong film makers. Like Jingle Ma’s Butterfly Lovers and Frankie Chan’s The Legendary Amazons, Ching’s latest film covers well-worn material. And while I cannot speak to The Legendary Amazons as I have not seen it, I can say that Butterfly Lovers and The Sorcerer and the White Snake aim for the same audience of teenaged Chinese girls. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

And Tony Ching has made a better film than Butterfly Lovers in all respects. It is considerably better written, better acted, looks much less low-budget and etc. But it does as much for me as Butterfly Lovers did. Other versions of the tale have aged quite gracefully. The Japanese film, Love of the White Snake, is pretty close to timeless. Tsui Hark’s Green Snake is one of my favorite movies; for all of its dated pre-handover commentary, there is a meditation there on love and destiny and human nature that is unusually deep for as commercial a director as Tsui.

So what of The Sorcerer and the White Snake? I don’t know. It seemed to me like an easily forgotten exercise. The computer generated effects, which dominate every part of the movie, are hardly impressive compared to western films, and there is neither interesting design nor thematic weight to hold them up. Jet Li is on hand to play Fa Hai, whom the script portrays as essentially well-meaning, but his athleticism means quite little when CGI chaos floods the screen. He showed himself quite capable of handling dramatic roles in Ocean Heaven, but his character has none of the depth seen in Tsui’s Green Snake. He is well-meaning throughout, and that is all we know of him. There is no unresolved doubt, no hypocrisy, and no sexual tension with his sworn enemies. He’s one note.

Likewise with Xu Xian. Raymond Lam is competent enough in the role, but we only know that he likes to help people with his herbal medicine and that he loves Bai Suzhen. He finds no moral dilemma in her deception (she does not tell him that she is actually a snake demon), nor in their breaking of natural law. He’s one note too.

That we know so little about these characters beyond the intensity of their feelings makes the climax fairly dull, unnecessary even. There is nothing to be resolved; it’s a light show. Spectacular, yes, even with less than impressive cgi, but it is still an empty display.

The Sorcerer and the White Snake is a showcase for pretty people and often ugly computer effects. It is inoffensive, and likely to entertain its intended audience with its talking cgi animals (mice, bunnies, and turtles). There’s nothing especially wrong with it, and it is clearly the film that Tony Ching intended to make. But it seems to me that it does nothing that I could not find in any other film of its type. Ching Siu-Tung was once a director who pushed visual boundaries with his fight choreography and wire-work. Now he’s directing family film pablum.

Or maybe I’m just burnt out on cgi filled costume films.