Ching Se (in the west as Green Snake). Hong Kong,1993
Directed by Tsui Hark
This film is based on the old Chinese legend of “Madame White Snake,” or rather it’s based on a novel that was based on the legend, which is no surprise since it’s a popular story and there have been many interpretations over the years, including a Peking Opera. Two snake spirits (also sometimes referred to as snake demons) named White Snake and Green Snake decide that they want to be human, and transform themselves accordingly into two beautiful sisters and attempt to live in the human world. White Snake is the older of the two, and her spiritual power is greater than Green Snake’s, who sometimes can’t control her snakey impulses and tends to revert to her snake form at very inconvenient moments. You may recognize the basic plot from my earlier review of The Devil Wives of Li Fong by E. Hoffman Price, which is based on the same story.
White Snake soon attracts the attention of the scholar Xian Xu and becomes his wife, complicated by the fact that Xian Xu is deathly afraid of snakes and, as noted above, White Snake can keep her human guise well, but Green Snake can’t always keep her snake impulses under control. Aside from Green Snake’s occasional indiscretions, their attempts to be fully human are complicated by the fact that the sisters have also attracted the rather unwelcome attentions of two other men. One is a Taoist priest who of course recognizes their true nature and attempts on multiple occasions to destroy them. This is played mostly for comedy since he’s nowhere near their level on the power scale. The other one is a Buddhist monk named Fahai and he’s the real threat. The only thing that saves the sisters initially is that he sees them working for good purposes, like using their magic to save their village from a flood. He is both unsure of how to proceed and also—though he is in deep, deep denial—attracted to Green Snake.
When Green Snake accidentally drinks some special wine during the Dragon Boat festival, her true nature is revealed in full to Xian Xu, who immediately dies of fright. In order to bring him back, White Snake and Green Snake travel to a sacred mountain in order to steal a magic herb that can restore his soul to his body. The monk Fahai intervenes and captures Green Snake, though White Snake manages to return home with the herb and revives Xian Xu. Fahai spares Green Snake on the condition that she do everything possible to “distract” him while he sits in meditation, thus proving (to himself) his spiritual control. Turns out that Green Snake is better at distracting than Fahai is at meditating. When confronted with the proof that he has lost, he breaks his word and attempts to kill Green Snake. When she manages to escape, he then kidnaps Xian Xu and attempts to turn him into a monk to “save” him.
At this point one might be forgiven for thinking that Tsui Hark was setting up for a romantic denouement after the surmounting of serious obstacles, but, not to be spoilery, that isn’t quite the way things go. Rather, we have an epic battle for the life of one man which turns into the possible salvation of another. You’ll need to watch it yourself to sort that out. I’m a big fan of fantasy in all its aspects, and very fond of the Asian variety, but I will say that I wanted to like this movie a lot more than I did. Joey Wong and Maggie Cheung as White Snake and Green Snake were perfect, the sets and art direction created a very believable legendary China, which made up for some of the more primitive special effects. Yet the pacing was a bit slow, and the tone of most of the movie simply didn’t fit the ending. It’s not that the ending was wrong, as such, or even not the one I wanted, but rather that I don’t think it worked. See, I cared about White Snake and Green Snake and even Xian Xu. In order for the ending to work, the viewer would have needed to care more about someone else, and the groundwork just wasn’t there. That’s all I’m going to say about the ending specifically. With that caveat in mind, definitely worth seeing, if nothing else for the two principals and yet a different take on the legend.
*I had originally listed this one as White Snake, Green Snake, but that was in error. The proper title in English would be Green Snake.