Written by Michael Nazarewycz
There’s a car out there somewhere. It’s at least 20 years old, it’s either primer-grey or riddled with rust, it has body damage or is missing something (bumper, taillight, whatever), the tires don’t match (and one might even be the donut), the windshield is visibly dinged, and the engine knocks and pings. But damn, the stereo in that thing is ridiculous.
If you haven’t owned this car, or haven’t known someone who has owned this car, or haven’t had this car slow-roll your neighborhood, then you haven’t lived. And if you haven’t lived, now’s your chance to experience something similar – a film with so much going wrong with it and yet something so wonderfully right.
The Sorcerer and the White Snake is a martial arts fantasy based on the Chinese tale “The Legend of the White Snake.” The story (at least as far as the film is concerned) tells the tale of a 1,000-year-old white snake named Susu who, in the guise of a mortal woman (Eva Huang), falls in love with mortal Xu Xian (Raymond Lam), and he for her. A sorcerer monk named Fahai (Jet Li), however, sees the white snake as a threat to the man and to mankind, so he goes to battle with her in an effort to rescue the former and protect the latter. By the film’s end, lives are forever changed.
The director of The Sorcerer and the White Snake, Siu-Tung Ching (aka Tony Ching), has an amazing pedigree. His work in martial arts films dates back to the 1970s; he was the action director on 2002’s Best Foreign Picture Oscar nominee Hero; he was the action choreographer on 2004’s House of the Flying Daggers; he was action coordinator on John Woo’s much-lauded The Killer (1989); and if all of that movie moxie doesn’t impress you, he was the action coordinator for the opening ceremonies of 2008’s Olympic Games in Beijing.
So imagine my surprise when, smack dab in the middle of the film, I found myself … bored. No kidding. The pace of this film is glacial, which is not something you want in either an action or fantasy film. And when there is action, the two main draws – martial arts and special effects – both fail to dazzle. The battles are too short and lack any creativity, and the special effects employed are only one or two rungs above those used in all of the Syfy network’s movies.
But even if you can forgive all of this, and even if you can forgive that fact that Jet Li is used more for his name than his skills, the heart of the film (of any film, really) … the story … is simply maddening.
It starts with the fact that Susu never really appears to pose any kind of threat. There is no requirement for her to seduce Xian to gain access to the mortal world (or something like that) so that she can wreak havoc; she’s merely an ancient spirit who falls in love with young mortal. And while I understand that the romantic relationship between Xian and Susu establishes what will become tragedy (which you want in a story), Fahai’s intervention makes absolutely no sense.
And it’s not as if he has a connection to Xian (like a nosey uncle or something), which might give him cause, albeit still misguided, to interfere in the relationship; he is a stranger to them and he inserts himself into their lives because he simply disapproves of the relationship. Yes, good must battle evil whether the parties are familiar with each other or not, but without the presence of real danger, Fahai is nothing more than a mystic meddler.
The only real threat in this film comes from a bat demon that does battle with Fahai’s apprentice, Neng Ren (Zhang Wen). But even that has nothing to do with the Xian/Fahai/Susu triangle, and feels like it’s been inserted into the film for filler action and some comic relief from Ren, who is not only an apprentice to a sorcerer, but a goofy, loveable, bungling apprentice to a sorcerer.
Yet with all of these problems with the car that is The Sorcerer and the White Snake, there’s still that great stereo system, represented by the film’s cinematography. It’s gorgeous. Some of the quieter scenes of fantasy actually use the CGI to excellent effect, but it’s the film’s quieter moments, particularly those without any FX requirements, that are the best. The shots from cinematographer Kwok-Man Keung are moving postcards that celebrate another time when the simplicity of life allowed for few things to distract from the beauty of its surroundings.
This is not only the biggest selling point of the film, but of the Blu-ray disc as well, which is available on 4/9 and contains the following extras:
- Behind the Scenes with Jet Li: Fighting, Stunts & Laughs
- Behind the Scenes: Visual Effects and Production Design
- Behind the Scenes of the Beauties and the Beasts
- AXS TV: A Look at The Sorcerer and the White Snake
- Theatrical trailer
If you are a fan of Jet Li, or if you are a fan the portrayal of ancient China, then this film is for you. Otherwise, invest both your time and money on some of Li’s or Ching’s better offerings.