The evil spirit White Snake (Eva Huang) falls in love with a young herbalist (Raymond Lam) and transforms herself into a beautiful lady with the help of Green Snake (Charlene Choi) so that she can be with him. When White Snake uses her supernatural powers to save her town from a mysterious disease, she unintentionally allows the sorcerer Fa Hai (Jet Li) to detect her presence. His mission is to vanquish all evil from the world, putting her life in danger.
Directed by Ching Siu-tung, this fantasy melodrama is really quite beautiful. There are colours here that I have never seen before, and that I’m not sure ever even really occur naturally. But then, the whole thing seems conjured from a CGI paintbox; the film is deliberately, gloriously artificial, fantastic and over the top in a storybook kind of way.
The story, apparently based on a Chinese legend, seems to derive its moral from the idea that we must all respect our true nature, and here, our nature is destiny. To mess with this rigid orthodoxy is to invite chaos. And chaos in this case looks like the end of the world. In the movie’s deliriously crazy climax, the sea quakes, the earth moves and the winds whip up a storm – all because of love. Actually it’s the 'wrong love’, and yes indeed the film engages with gender politics here in a way that seems blithely innocent and naïve, with nary a hint of postmodern irony. Maybe Ching Siu-tung and co. thought that such considerations were to spoil the film’s gleeful spirit?
Set in an imagined and ancient version of China, the plot has a demon, a beautiful White Snake (Eva Hing), fall in love with a human, a guileless herbalist called Xu Xian (Raymond Lam). White Snake can take human form, which she does to save Xu Xian from drowning after he falls into a river. Of course Xu Xian is unaware of his lover’s, um, true nature and happily looks forward to marriage. Later, Jet Li, a sorcerer with a sixth sense for wheedling out demons of all kinds, gets onto White Snake’s cunning game almost straight away. Warning that the relationship is destined to end in tears, and convinced of her intrinsic evil and natural mendacity, the Sorcerer is prepared to do battle even it means making his young friend unhappy. Meanwhile, White Snake is torn up with guilt, and duty to Xu Xian and her selfish needs"¦
I’m making this sound a little plodding, but in fact the movie barrels along with subplots – there’s a good one involving White Snake’s sister Green Snake (Charlene Choi), who is quite happy to remain 'snakey’ (sorry). There are a lot of incidental action vignettes that don’t have a lot to do with the central narrative but have much to do with staging an epic screen spectacle. Still, some of the best stuff in the film is comic. There’s a particularly funny set piece when White Snake stages a matrimonial dinner in order for Xu Xian to carry out his obligation as a suitable suitor by asking formally for her hand in marriage. Trouble is all of her 'family’ are creatures of one kind or another, including a rabbit, a tortoise, and a mouse – all of whom disguise themselves in human form for the scene.
Unfortunately, their magic is weak and so their real identities start 'poking’ out of their human 'masks’. It’s a very witty variation on a classic comedy riff, only here its gags are dependent on the CGI mastery of the effects team and the film’s gifted editors. And in a way that’s Sorcerer’s biggest sell and most overwhelming problem as a movie experience: it’s so relentlessly spectacular and we’re so aware of its technique, it totally overwhelms the humanity of the story. It’s fun, but in a way that leaves no after-glow.