At least that was the title when my wife and I watched it last night on Netflix. On IMDB, it was called The Emperor and the White Snake. Chinese, with English subtitles. A gorgeous film, a magical Buddhist fairy tale, as genuinely beautiful a film as can be imagined. Also, sort of weirdly misogynist, in the sense that all the female characters in the film, without exception, are demons. But there are evil demons and benevolent demons, so I suppose it’s defensible, sort of. Here’s the trailer, to give you a taste.
The version on Netflix doesn’t look entirely finished. At times, the CGI is spectacular, amazing. At times, it looks more like a marker. I suspect that what we saw was the film as screened at the Venice Film Festival, and that the plan is to finish it for Chinese release.
The film is directed by Tony Siu-Tung Ching, veteran fight choreographer and director; you may know him from the Legend of the Swordsman films. The story: Jet Li plays Fahai, a Buddhist monk tasked with hunting down and imprisoning demons. As the film begins, he fights an ice demon, played by Vivian Tsu; a spectacular sequence, lots of that flying/fighting stuff that make Chinese martial arts films so amazing. That’s sort of the prologue.
As the film proper begins, two half-snake, half human sister female demons, the White Snake (Eva Huang) and the Green Snake (Charlene Choi), writhe sinuously in what looks like sort of an enchanted glade. Eva Huang is breathtaking in this film, lovely beyond description despite, you know, being half snake. The White Snake sees a mortal, Xu Xian (Raymond Lam), who is gathering herbs on a mountain cliff. For fun, she transforms to her snake persona, and scares him. He falls off the cliff into the ocean; stunned by the fall, he begins to sink. She transforms to human form and jumps in after him, and kisses him, transferring some of her life essence, and also oxygen. He comes to, but does not remember her, but she’s utterly smitten by him.
And so she goes to a local city festival to look for him. Green Snake, her sister, reluctantly comes along, and meets Neng Ren (Zhang Wen), Jet Li’s assistant monk, who she kind of likes, enough at least to enchant. Anyway, White Snake tells Xu Xian her name is SuSu, and they fall in love, and marry. Xu Xian is an herbalist/physician, and when the city is stricken with plague, he creates a remedy. She adds more of her life essence to the concoction, and it works–saves everyone in the city from plague. They are completely. blissfully happy. But SuSu has given too much of herself, given up too much life essence, and is dying.
Meanwhile, Fahai is out fighting other demons. He defeats an entire group of fox demons (also lovely young women, in their human form). In one battle, his assistant Neng Ren, is bitten and infected by a demon, and over the rest of the film, slowly becomes one. This makes him, apparently, all the more attractive to Green Snake. And Fahai knows of the love affair of Xu Xian and SuSu, and doesn’t approve. Love between mortals and demons, he says, is always a bad idea. But he tells SuSu he’ll let it go, for now.
But she’s dying. And Xu Xian is told by a magical rat that there’s an herb that could save her, but it’s locked in a magical pagoda. (There are magical rats, of course; why wouldn’t there be? Also magical chickens, rabbits and a tortoise, though the tortoise speaks too slowly to be much use to SuSu.) So Xu Xian determines to storm the pagoda and save his wife’s life. But it turns out, the pagoda is the prison where Fahai keeps all the demons he’s captured, and the herb that could save her is also the magical herb that keeps them locked up. And releasing the herb leads Xu Xian to be attacked by all these demons. And Fahai and all his apprentice monks fight to keep the demons locked up (though the cost is them torturing Xu Xian).
So releasing the demons–and saving the White Snake/SuSu– leads to a huge epic fight scene between the White Snake and Fahai. And it was at that point in the movie that my wife turned to me and said, “exactly who is the bad guy in this movie?” Great question, honestly. Xu Xian is being attacked by demons. SuSu/White Snake wants to save her husband. Fahai wants to keep all these demons from attacking mankind; keep evil contained. So who is the bad guy? Who do we root for in that fight?
The answer, obviously, is Buddha. I won’t give away the ending. (I barely understand the ending). Except it’s wonderfully romantic and deeply tragic, and doesn’t make a lick of sense, from my perspective as a Westerner.
I was blown away by this movie, and feel like my life is richer for having seen it. I don’t pretend to have understood it all. Jet Li is always so grounded in these things, that ravaged face giving him such dignity and pathos. I had thought that Ziyi Zhang was the most breathtakingly beautiful actress of Chinese cinema, until this film introduced me to Eva Huang. I didn’t think this film was quite up to the standard set by Hero, or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, but it holds up–it’s a film that can be mentioned in the same breath as those films, at least. I wouldn’t ordinarily recommend a film in which all the female characters are, you know, demons. But White Snake is an awfully morally good demon, and her love for Xu Xian is the heart and soul of the movie. See it, if you can. It’s really something else again.