Review — The Sorcerer and the White Snake

The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011, Directed by Ching Siu-tung, starring Jet Li)

 Those who have read my review of White Snake, Green Snake will find a lot of parallels in this movie, and that is not a coincidence. The Sorcerer and the White Snake is another retelling of the Chinese legend of “Madame White Snake” and if anything follows the details of the legend even more closely than the previous movie. Here the monk Fahai is given a more prominent role (played by Jet Li, so no surprise there) and to make room the comic relief Taoist priest is dispensed with altogether. Fahai has great spiritual powers (and is the “sorcerer” of the title, though “priest” would be more accurate) and is the abbot of a monastery. Assisted by an acolyte named Neng Ren (Wen Zhang), he travels the area to battle the demons that threaten the people there. Early in the movie we see Fahai battle and defeat an ice harpy with Neng Ren providing the comic relief. Once a demon is defeated, it is trapped in a sort of limbo to contemplate its sins, possibly for eternity. As the two travel they see evidence that a bat demon is attacking people in the local village, and this creature is their next target.

Warning: There will be spoilers.

Xu Xian (Raymond Lam) is the travelling herbalist who, in search of rare medicinal herbs, comes close to the home of Susu (played by Huang Shengyi) and Qingqing (played by Charlene Choi), two snake demons (the term is sometimes translated as “spirit” rather than demon, but from Fahai’s point of view, they’re demons). Green Snake (here called Qingqing, the younger and more impetuous of the two) just for fun startles Xu Xian so that he falls into a deep lake and would have drowned, had not White Snake (here called Susu) taken human form and dove in after him. She passes some of her vital life essence to the drowning man by kissing him, and thus saving his life. When his friends find him he tries to tell them of the beautiful girl who saved him, but they think he’s hallucinating.

Meanwhile, the presence of the bat demon is causing more and more villagers to fall sick, and no medicine seems to cure them.  Susu, her curiosity piqued by her encounter with Xu Xuan, takes human form along with Qingqing and searches for him. They eventually meet and Xu Xian recognizes the girl who saved him. She agrees to be his wife. Qingqing meets Neng Ren who is out searching for the bat demon. He doesn’t recognize Qingqing as a demon and she uses the chance to flirt with him a bit, but he keeps up his search for the bat demon. When he finds it, he manages to destroy its minions but the demon itself turns out too strong for him and he is bitten. Fahai appears and defeats the demon after a hard battle, but now Neng Ren, having been bitten by the demon, is slowly turning into a bat demon himself. Qingqing then reveals herself as a snake demon to Neng Ren and tries to educate him on the proper ways of being a demon, but the miserable acolyte is a very poor student.

One thing I’m certainly noticing by this point is that it’s taking a lot more space to describe the plot in this movie than White Snake, Green Snake, and that’s because there is more of one. I haven’t even talked about some of the lesser demons who are friends of the two snakes, like a turtle, owl, and mouse demon—more about him anon—but there’s a lot going on here. Xu Xian is frantically trying to cure the townsfolk of the demon sickness without success, until Susu imparts some of her own essence to the medicine, giving it a boost of power that cures the villagers, making Xu Xian a hero. But Fahai senses what’s in the medicine and suspects Susu’s true nature. He gives Xu Xian a  “spirit dagger,” to defend himself with and confronts Susu. He tells her that no good can come of her union with a human, whatever her intentions, and warns her to leave Xu Xian. She refuses, and is later attacked by Fahai’s acolytes. When she battles them in her snake demon form, Xu Xian doesn’t realize that the creature is Susu in her true shape, panics, and stabs her with the spirit dagger, gravely injuring her, and Susu retreats to her home where Qingqing attempts to care for her.

When he discovers what he’s done, Xu Xian is determined to save Susu, but the only thing that can cure her is a mystic herb kept locked in a sacred pagoda under the protection of Fahai’s monastery. The mouse demon offers to show Xu Xian the way and gives him advice on how to secure the herb, which Xu Xian does. The problem is that by taking the herb Xu Xian manages to break the seal on the pagoda, which was the prison of hundreds of demons and evil spirits. Xu Xian gives the herb to the mouse demon who scampers back to Susu, but Xu Xian himself is possessed by the demonic forces released from the pagoda. Fahai and the monks begin a dangerous and lengthy magic ceremony designed to free Xu Xian from his possession. Meanwhile Qingqing and the now-healed Susu attack the monastery, believing that the monks are holding Xu Xian prisoner. Fahai tries to convince them of his intentions but Susu doesn’t trust the monk and is too angry and frightened to listen. The snake demons’ combined power is almost too much for Fahai and the monastery is inundated by a giant wave, but the spiritual power of the monks concentrating on the spell keeps them alive while the ceremony continues. It is only when the mouse demon and his allies attack them that their concentration is broken.

Neng Ren suddenly reappears, now in full bat-demon form, but instead of attacking like a demon should, he uses his power of flight to begin rescuing the monks from the water. Seeing this, Fahai questions himself on the rightness of his actions as a demon hunter and is gifted with a large influx of spiritual power, with which he is able to defeat the demon snakes. Here the Buddhist elements of the story come to the forefront. It is Neng Ren’s actions in saving his former comrades even though by nature he should now be their mortal enemy that gives Fahai pause, and it’s clear in context that Fahai has thus received Enlightenment. Neng Ren also rescues the wounded Qingqing, who comments that he is saving one who he should want to see destroyed. Defeated, Susu is now to be sealed inside the pagoda for her crimes, but she calls on the name of Buddha to be allowed to see Xu Xian one last time, and Fahai grants her wish. Xu Xian is mostly free of the possession but he doesn’t remember her now. She tells Xu Xian that she meditated for a thousand years to reach the level of power she had, but that one moment with him was worth more than all of it. She kisses him, which removes the lingering effects of the possession and restores his memory. It is at that moment that she is torn from his embrace sealed in the tower again. For how long? Perhaps forever, but Xu Xian now keeps the grounds of that tower clean and works at the monastery for his own atonement. Or perhaps just to remain close to Susu.

As for Neng Ren, Qingqing informs him that he’ll never be a proper demon, despite his form, and that she hopes she never loves anyone the way her sister loved Xu Xian. It had caused her nothing but trouble. Which is certainly hard to argue with, yet Susu obviously disagreed. The moral, if there is one, certainly isn’t that love conquers all, but in the context of a worldview that sees romantic love as just another illusion, it can certainly shakes things up. Neng Ren returns to Fahai in his demon form, but Fahai knows that Neng Ren’s heart is still good and perhaps they’ll find a way to work together despite the change. .

In some ways I prefer this version of the legend to White Snake, Green Snake, though neither has what you’d call a happy ending in any Western sense. The special effects were an order of magnitude better, for one thing, and whether you agree or disagree with the implied and overt messages within the story, it did give a lot of food for thought. Jet Li was perfectly cast as Fahai, and the groundwork for his enlightenment/salvation was certainly better done. Yet there was a goofy charm in the first movie that, while not exactly lacking in the second one, stands on its own. And Joey Wong and Maggie Cheung as the two demon sisters was a pairing very hard to beat, though the principals here do a very good job in their roles. Fortunately, I don’t have to decide and neither do you. We have both versions now, and I can easily recommend either.

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2 thoughts on “Review — The Sorcerer and the White Snake

  1. Heh, funny. After reading Yamada Monogatari, I looked for you on Facebook and Twitter, but came up with nothing. Today I received an alert from Google that someone had posted on one of my favorite topics — Taoist priests — so I clicked on it and found your blog.

    The Tsui Hark film Green Snake (which you call White Snake, Green Snake) doesn’t follow the ancient legend because it’s an adaptation of a modern novel by Lillian Lee Pik Wah, a version of the folktale which invented and focused on the morally ambiguous “sister” snake, Green. She also wrote the novels that inspired Farewell My Concubine, and the supernatural movies A Terra Cotta Warrior, Rouge, Life After Life, and Red and Black (a political/supernatural flick starring Lam Ching-Ying and Joey Wong!). Translating some of her work into English is on my bucket list.

    Thanks for this review. It’s nice to see a review of a HK/PRC film which focuses on the storytelling rather than the CGI/wirework/authenticity debate.

    • You’re welcome. I think I have a talent for obscurity–others have pointed out that I’m hard to find, even when I’m not trying to be (I’m on both Twitter and Facebook). In my earlier review of Green Snake I did point out that it was based on a novel based on the legend, not that directors/screenwriters ever stick that close to the source material in any case. I still haven’t read that novel, though that’s probably something I should correct if a translation exists or comes into existence, so if you do one, let me know. “White Snake, Green Snake” was how the title appeared on the print I own. I was reasonably certain it wasn’t the proper translation of Ching Se. I’ll look into that some more.

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