It’s easy to find fault with The Sorcerer and the White Snake, but that doesn't mean it's all bad. Ching Siu-Tung directed this CGI-slathered retelling of the Legend of the White Snake, a Chinese myth about a 1000 year-old snake demon who falls in love with a human. However, snake/human love violates the natural order so a fanatical monk shows up to mete heavenly justice with lots of monk versus snake shenanigans. This legend is probably best known to Hong Kong Cinema fans via Tsui Hark's 1993 fantasy Green Snake. Tsui's film (based on a novel by Lillian Lee) placed usual supporting player Green Snake into the lead role for a subversion of the White Snake myth. Not surprisingly, Ching Siu-Tung has fewer ambitions than Tsui Hark; Sorcerer and the White Snake is commercial and conservative, meaning less thinly-veiled China commentary and more man versus demon rhetoric. It’s like reading the Bible, except with kung-fu.
Hold on, there’s also love. The alternative China title for Sorcerer and the White Snake is It’s Love, and the filmmakers certainly hope that it is. For likely commercial reasons, Sorcerer focuses on the romance between White Snake Bai Suzhen (Eva Huang) and human herbologist Xu Xian (Raymond Lam), supposing that it’s tragic, romantic and probably hygienic all at the same time. The two meet semi-cute when he falls in the ocean and she saves him with some of her life essence – naturally administered with a kiss – before disappearing. He thinks she was only a fantasy, but when she reappears later they fall instantly in love – a willing violation of the natural order. By her, at least. Xu Xian has no idea that Suzhen is a snake demon, and is so dense that he doesn’t even notice that her relatives act like wild animals (they’re rabbit, turtle, rooster and frog demons). An unrealistically nice and also dense fellow? Raymond Lam can play that role in his sleep.
Unfortunately, Suzhen must contend with Buddhist monk Fahai (Jet Li), who's kind of a hardass about all this natural order stuff. Fahai is reasonably stern but also understanding - basically Jet Li playing himself. Fahai respects Suzhen’s innate kindness and lets her off once or twice. However, he warns that if she doesn’t leave Xu Xian, he and his monk posse will come charging back to throw her in the demon-holding Leifeng Pagoda. Suzhen is portrayed as decent but hardly wise, choosing to thumb her nose at Fahai without any protection or backup plan against sudden Buddhist monk ambushes. Eva Huang could never match Joey Wong’s regal White Snake from Tsui Hark’s film, though Huang is much better as a female warrior than Kelly Chen was in Ching Siu-Tung’s Empress and the Warriors. The role requires equal parts cute flirting, fierce gazes and flailing arm action, and Huang acquits herself well enough.
In yet another variation on her perky and cute heroines, Charlene Choi amusingly plays Green Snake Qingqing. The portrayal is nothing like Maggie Cheung’s seductive and potentially lethal Green Snake, but Choi’s lighter version is fine for this simple fantasy. Choi is nicely complemented by Wen Zhang (Ocean Heaven), who plays Fahai’s cursed disciple Neng Ren with the likable charisma of a young Jacky Cheung. He forms a mostly comic partnership with Qingqing, adding minor diversion to the film’s larger love versus destiny storyline, which is amped to obscene levels by Ching Siu-Tung’s slo-mo clinches and Mark Lui’s bombastic score. Ching is an ace action director but only an average storyteller, and delivers the film’s unchallenging narrative with competent if unremarkable grace. This is a movie meant for mass (read: family) audiences, and to cement the deal the filmmakers even offer up talking CGI animals. These commercial excesses are ultimately tolerable; as a family fairy tale or time-killing teen diversion, Sorcerer and the White Snake has its plusses, and is light years better than Jingle Ma’s Butterfly Lovers, another recent attempt at retelling an age-old tale.
When it comes to the CGI, however, all bets are off. Sorcerer’s visual effects are jarringly bad, and not in a charming or nostalgic Ray Harryhausen way. This is amateurish CGI work, with giant snakes, bat-winged demons, fiery caverns and large floods rendered with the convince of a Playstation 3 cutscene. At times, Eva Huang and Charlene Choi appear as mermaid-like snakes, their bare shoulders descending into long reptilian bodies that look like something you’d see in a slimming commercial. Even more, everyone fights using CGI and also against CGI. A good eighty-plus percent of the action in Sorcerer and the White Snake involves actors pantomiming while someone’s Dell workstation renders the rest. It’s great to see Jet Li, but when his opponents are Eva Huang, Charlene Choi and thin air, the excitement dims a bit. Kids and the CGI-inclined may get a kick out of the digital chaos, but those who remember Jet Li as an actual martial artist will likely be put out.
Sorcerer and the White Snake falls way below the expectations for any film starring Jet Li. His fans want to see him engage someone in combat and not perform a wushu routine in front of a green screen. Warlords and Ocean Flame demonstrated that Li has actual dramatic chops, but those really aren't on display here either. Li isn't even the film's true star – it's really Eva Huang, who was elevated to a lead role because of her standing with the film's executive producer Yang Zi (Also the director of Chase Our Love, yikes!). Sorry, but filmmakers don't really make their films for audiences, which is why we shouldn't get that upset when they diverge this greatly from expectations. Anyway, there's still an audience that should enjoy this film – the people that like cute stars, fantasy romance, copious CGI and also talking animals. For this audience, Sorcerer and the White Snake has their back. It's not love, but it's something. (Kozo, 2011)