Adapted from the oft-filmed Chinese folktale and opera: Madame White Snake, this sumptuous, star-studded fantasy delivers the heart-stirring romance and abundant spectacle one would expect from a collaboration between the creative talents behind A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), Shaolin Soccer (2001), Mr. Vampire (1985) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Madame White Snake (achingly lovely Eva Huang Sheng-Yi) and her sister, Green Snake (Charlene Choi) are beautiful snake demons who live in an enchanted forest with their magical animal friends, until one day White Snake saves handsome herbalist Xu Xian (Raymond Lam) from drowning in the river. They fall instantly in love. Reunited at the Lantern Festival held in town, Xu Xian resolves to marry White Snake, unaware of her supernatural nature.
Meanwhile, ghost-busting Buddhist monk Fahai (Jet Li) and his bumbling apprentice Neng Ren (Wen Zhang) are hot on the trail of bat demons, fox spirits and other monstrosities spreading a virulent plague throughout the region. When White Snake selflessly transfers some of her own magical energy into Xu Xian's healing remedy to help save the local townsfolk, she inadvertently reveals herself to Fahai. Though recognising her kind heartedness, Fahai warns White Snake that spirits cannot find love with mortal men and she should stay away from Xu Xian lest both suffer the consequences of transgressing heaven's law.
The story of Madame White Snake underwent several permutations since its initial incarnation centuries ago as a cautionary Confucian warning against dallying with wanton women. In its earliest version, the titular serpentine maiden was an evil spirit preying upon the lifeforce of a hapless scholar. However, by the seventeenth century the legend became a love story, although the righteousness of Monk Fahai and his actions remained intact. By the time the tale was adapted into an opera, around the eighteenth century, White Snake became its undisputed heroine, the living embodiment of selfless love, while Monk Fahai was more often characterised as stubborn, arrogant and in some instances, outright evil. It was this version that served the basis for the ensuing majority of film adaptations, including the Shaw Brothers musical Madame White Snake (1963) by feted auteur Li Han-hsiang, pioneering anime Panda and the Magic Serpent (1958), Tsui Hark's peerless -Green Snake (1993) and the intriguingly avant-garde Phantom of Snake (2000).
Co-produced by Chui Po Chu, the woman behind Kung Fu Hustle (2004) and recent Chinese blockbuster Confucious (2010), and scripted by veterans Tsang Kan Cheong and Szeto Cheuk Han, The Sorcerer and the White Snake was an attempt to engineer a grandiose extravaganza to set the Hong Kong film industry on equal footing with Hollywood, and for the most part succeeds quite wonderfully. It is certainly a return to form for Ching Siu Tung after the mixed bag that was An Empress and the Warriors (2007). Whilst his take on the classic tale lacks the subversive sociopolitical content and psychological complexity that elevated Hark's version to the front rank, as an attempt to compete with the likes of, say Avatar (2009), this more than delivers on spectacle combining heady fantasy adventure, a genuinely poignant love story and an infectious, appealingly childlike sense of fun and wonder. Plus a gut-wrenching climax from which only the most stone-hearted could remain unmoved. Raymond Lam and an especially strong Eva Huang Sheng-Yi are very appealing as the lovers, imbuing these classic characters with an engagingly modern spirit.
Despite a generous budget, the special effects are of admittedly variable quality, but after our initially wobbly first glimpse of Huang and Choi atop slinky CGI snake bodies, continue to improve with escalatingly ambitious, exhilarating set-pieces: Jet Li's battle with the Bat Demon inside an active volcano; the pursuit of a pack of fox spirits across a rooftop until their seductive female alter-egos burst out of a forest of bamboo; Li and Huang matching awesome destructive elemental superpowers. By the time the film reaches its astounding finale where the gigantic sea serpent incarnations of Green and White attack the chanting residents of the Buddhist temple with an all-consuming flood, precipitating the divine intervention of almighty Buddha, viewers will likely feel emotionally drained and slack-jawed with awe.
As has been the trend with mainland-influenced Hong Kong films of late, the pace is more stately than classic HK fare but Ching Siu Tung imbues individual sequences with his trademark frenetic energy and includes abundant and welcome humour. An all-star cast of Hong Kong comedians voice the delightful array of talking animals, including Rabbit (Miriam Yeung), slow-speaking Turtle (Jiang Wu), Toad Monster (Chapman To), and the scene-stealing little Mouse who proves a most unexpectedly valuable ally to both White Snake and Xu Xian. The scene where the animals struggle to adopt human form whilst posing as White's family in front of a befuddled Xu Xian is especially amusing, while the film greatly benefits from the comic talents of Charlene Choi who is well cast as the playful, flirtatious Green Snake. In fact the film features not one, but two intertwined love stories - one serious though crucially not heavyhanded, the other comic yet still affecting, as bumbling Neng Ren falls for Green Snake, precipitating a plot twist that proves crucial towards conveying the core message of tolerance and understanding.
This version of the story is more akin to a Buddhist parable. A clash between the indomitable will of heaven and the irrepressible spirit of the human heart, revealing Ching Siu Tung as a less challenging filmmaker than Tsui Hark, but also less cynical. Someone who believes wholeheartedly in the redemptive power of love. Jet Li essays a stoic, authoritative yet far more benevolent interpretation of Monk Fahai. A man driven to uphold the natural order but compassionate enough to recognise true love and goodness, even in a demon. For some reason, the region 2 DVD release has been retitled The Emperor and the White Snake even though no emperor figures in this story. Gorgeously lensed in lustrous, eye-popping colours by no less than four cinematographers, the film features a lovely score by Mark Lui including a soulful theme song performed by Eva Huang Sheng-Yi and Raymond Lam - both on top form.