Movie Review: “The Sorcerer and the White Snake”

 ImageThe modern reshaping of the economic struggle between East and West plays out in “The Sorcerer and the White Snake,” a sharp Chinese reminder that not all cheese comes from Switzerland or Wisconsin.

A mad, laugh-out-loud mashup of “The Little Mermaid,” “Harry Potter,” assorted vampire tales, “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the disaster epic “2012” and oh – “Pokemon” – just to impose the cinematic precedents on display here, “Sorcerer” is a Chinese twist on the reliable sword and sorcery genre which caused Hollywood to impose “Clash of the Titans” and “Immortals” on the undeserving.

And it could be a point of pride that this effects-driven nonsense is every bit as bad  — in a fun way – as those blockbusters.

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Jet Li is an Abbott who travels the land, tracking down demons, engaging in gravity-defying martial arts battles with them and then trapping their souls in this magical stone that his monastery guards while the demons “meditate” and amend their ways.

Eva Huang and Charlene Choi are mermaid-like snake spirits who’d like to convince Friar Fahai that there are good demons and bad ones. And nobody is better at illustrating that than the White Snake (Huang) and the Green Snake (Choi).

White Snake is a moony, passionate flirt who saves an herb hunter who longs to be a doctor (Raymond Lam). Green Snake is a temperamental pixie who teases and toys with the Abbott’s comic sidekick (Zhang Wen), hiding her identity as she befriends him and tries to convince him that not all “demons” are bad.

But while her simple pranks, and White Snake’s cunning romantic manipulations seem harmless enough, you don’t want to cross them. And there are skies filled with biting bat demons and shape-shifters who turn into white foxes when they flee to give all demons a bad name.

Li, as “the Sorcerer,” is a background presence in this pseudo-epic, with the “Little Mermaid” style romance – Green Snake may lose her powers for love – in the foreground. That’s just as well, because the movie surrounding the martial arts veteran is silly beyond belief.

The snake-girl effects – all the snake effects – are digitally dated, not up to the latest Hollywood technology. But Director Tony Ching manages some splendid set pieces and eye-grabbing moments – foxes chased through a bamboo forest and the like. The Abbott soars across a canal and alights in a gondola, which seems to speed off in pursuit of demons without a motor or other means of propulsion. A monastery of white-clad monks make a sitting chain, holding hands and meditating, as water pours over them and they try to keep the demons unleashing that water at bay.

And the bat demons here are how flying vampires ought to look – bat wings, sharp teeth bad tempers.

“The Sorcerer and the White Snake” merrily skips about and makes sense only in the broadest fairytale context. But for anybody ready for a few far-fetched fantasy laughs, it delivers. And if you doubt the influence Western films are having on Chinese cinema, check out the Elmer Fudd line the comic sidekick delivers when the Bugs Bunnyish Green Snake innocently asks the buffoon what he’s doing.

“I’m hunting demons.”

 

MPAA Rating: Unrated, with fantasy action sequences and passionate kissing

Cast: Jet Li, Eva Huang, Raymond Lam, Charlene Choi, Zhang Wen, Vivian Hsu

Credits: Directed by Tony Ching. A Magnolia release. Running time: 133.

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