A masterpiece. Tsui Hark’s most sensual, literate and politically charged film reworks “Madame White Snake”, one the four Great Tales of China, adapted for the screen many times. Filmed in lush candy colours, Green Snake is a hallucinogenic dream, overflowing with fantasy spectacle, hyper-kinetic action, stylised sets, jokes, tear-jerking romance, musical numbers and super-charged eroticism. A searing political allegory, it satirizes racial purity, sexual repression and religious violence. Set in a world caught between fanciful myth and tragic reality, it opens on a crowd of squealing, pig-faced monsters observed by stoic Buddhist monk, Fa-Hai (Zhao Wen-zhou). But these aren’t demons. This is humanity, as seen through the eyes of a tormented, religious zealot. Humanity he is both repulsed by and protective of. Fa-Hai ascends into an idyllic forest wonderland, where he encounters a spider-spirit slowly becoming human. Chinese mythology recounts how animals that perform good deeds can become human, but Fa-Hai imprisons him beneath a tree. The monk fervently believes the earthly world must remain separate from the reckless world of spirits.
Buddhism is mostly thought of as a peaceful religion, but as someone who grew up in a predominantly Buddhist country, this writer can attest that some monks enforce their will through violence. It would be easy to simply blame religion. Hark doesn’t do that. Fa-Hai embodies the dichotomy of religious fervour, bad and good: conflicted, but hopeful, inflexible, but moral, his mystical powers at humanity’s service – whether they want it or not. When Fa-Hai sees two snake spirits shielding a pregnant woman from a raging storm, he recognizes goodness and spares their lives.
The serpent spirits, white snake Sou Ching (Joey Wong) and her sister Green (Maggie Cheung) adopt devastatingly beautiful human forms. After seeing off a corrupt, money-grubbing exorcist with their supernatural kung fu, the sisters explore the mortal world that fascinates them so, as Hark boldly fuses intellectual thirst with sexual curiosity. Green drops in (literally) on a lavish party. Nude and dripping wet from the rain, she performs a sizzling, quasi-lesbian dance with an Indian dancing girl that leaves the dancers, party guests and we, the audience breathless. It’s one of the sexiest scenes in cinema. Sou Ching swims upriver to catch a glimpse of handsome scholar Hsui-Xien (Wu Hsing-Kuo), with whom she falls deeply in love. This ‘unnatural’ liaison angers Fa-Hai (who grapples with his own sexual desire for Green), but Sou Ching doesn’t care. Love is all that matters, and she romances Hsui-Xien in her guise as the girl next door. Sou Ching embodies the archetypal heroine of classical Chinese literature: selfless, romantic, idealistic, led by her heart.
Sou Ching and her kid sister sashay into town, turning heads as they try out their new, human legs, their swaying hips leaving locals all flustered. Green tags along to satisfy her thirst for fun and a yearning for closeness with Sou Ching. Scenes of the snake sisters (and two real-life Hong Kong film icons) embracing naked in a pool made this a film festival favourite, yet the eroticism isn’t tacky but stylish, evoking classical art. When Sou Ching’s romance curtails their semi-incestuous passion, Green decides she’ll give earthly love a try. She innocently pursues Hsui-Xien, which angers Sou Ching, while her flirtatious teasing of Fa-Hai causes trouble. Green has no noble aspirations, but is unfailingly honest. She embodies passion, innocence, yearning, a fearless desire to transgress and explore. She is everything we fear and treasure at the same time, and in many ways, the film’s crucial character.
Hsui-Xien is flustered by their affections. He settles into wedded bliss with Sou Ching, but when Fa-Hai reveals his young bride is a snake, he freaks out and agrees to hand her over. In a splendid sequence that showcases Hark’s ability to fuse slapstick with storytelling, Hsui-Xien makes his way home while one villager after another appears and thanks him for his wife’s good deeds. Hsui-Xien cannot bring himself to kill Sou Ching, but he hasn’t courage enough to stand by her either. His heart gives out and Fa-Hai spirits him away to a monastery. Hsui-Xien embodies humanity: good at heart, but fearful, fickle and faithless.
Pregnant with Hsui-Xien’s child, Sou Ching flies to the monastery, while repentant Green searches for a magical herb to save the scholar’s life. Her exhilarating mid-air kung fu battle with a CG animated Magic Crane, precedes an astonishing climax where Hark pulls out all the stops and re-energizes his romantic fable into a Star Wars super-spectacular. Heaven and Earth collide, as Fa-Hai’s mystical purity clashes with a Sou Ching and Green’s supernatural passion, while a burst river threatens to destroy the village. Hark takes the fantastical visuals of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas into new realms of subtext: desire becomes a poisonous cloud, suspicion is a yellowy haze, sexual discovery is an explosion of colours, scored by a fabulous soundtrack mixing Chinese opera, tribal drums and Bollywood pop.
Green Snake was produced during an extraordinarily fertile period for Hong Kong’s greatest filmmaker, when his anxieties over the colony’s reunification with China birthed masterworks like The Lovers (1995) and The Blade (1996). Like these later films, Green Snake was not a box-office success, but is now regarded as a modern classic. Following this, the finest performance of her career, much beloved superstar Joey Wang retired from the screen. For Maggie Cheung – whose charisma sears the screen and has everyone raising their game just to keep up – this marked the stepping-stone towards her current status as Hong Kong’s finest actress. Only Zhao Wen-zhou failed to score his big break. Following this and excellent work in The Blade he should have become a major star, but an industry upheaval following 1997 left him stranded in abysmal action cheapies. With Hong Kong cinema healthier now than before, maybe he’ll find his way.
Meanwhile, with his disastrous Hollywood stint long behind him, Tsui Hark continues making the most exciting popular cinema in the world. For sheer ambition, Green Snake remains unmatched. An allegory for the ongoing tussle between the rigid doctrines, unfettered passions and ordinary folk caught in between. It climaxes with tragedy, redemption and a note of hope given voice in a newborn baby’s cries.
Hong Kong director, producer, writer and actor and one of the most important figures in modern Hong Kong cinema. Hark majored in film in the US, before returning to his homeland to work in television. Made his directing debut in 1979 with the horror thriller The Butterfly Murders, while 1983's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was a spectacular ghost fantasy quite unlike anything in HK cinema at the time. Other key films of this period include Shanghai Blues and the brilliant Peking Opera Blues.