It might have a highbrow reputation (something anyone who’s caught one of the sidebars can confirm), but that doesn’t mean that the organizers of the Venice Film Festival [ed. where we first saw the movie in 2011 — this is a slightly edited reprint of that review] don’t like to watch a little ass get kicked sometimes. 2010, in fact, was something of a banner year for action at the festival, with “13 Assassins” and ‘Detective Dee‘ in competition, and “Machete,” “The Town,” “Reign of Assassins” and “Legend of the Fist” all playing out of it. 2011 was a little lighter on the chop-socky, but if there was a single film that let film critics scratch their face-punch itch, it was the Jet Li vehicle “The Sorcerer & The White Snake.” Directed by Tony Ching, who not only helmed the classic “A Chinese Ghost Story,” but also served as action director/choreographer on the high octane likes of “Shaolin Soccer,” “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers,” expectations were high that at the very least that we’d see some spectacular fight sequences, and possibly even something that transcends the genre.
The film is based on a famous Chinese legend, generally known as the “Legend of the White Snake,” one that has served as inspiration for hundreds of operas in China, as well as a number of films and TV programs, perhaps most notably Tsui Hark‘s 1993 “Green Snake,” with Maggie Cheung. In this take, White Snake (Eva Huang, of “Kung-Fu Hustle” fame), a 1000-year-old snake demon, falls in love with Xu Xian (Raymond Lam), a young herbalist who aspires to become a doctor, against the warning of her companion Green Snake (Charlene Choi). She contrives events so they meet, and the two are soon wed, although Xian believes that she is a woman name Sou. Unfortunately, the titular sorceror Fa Hai (Li), who believes demons and humans can never live together, and his bumbling sidekick Neng Ren (Wen Zhang) are wandering the country battling demons wherever they find them, and having dispatched an ice witch in the opening, soon find themselves on White Snake’s trail.
As far as we can tell, it hews relatively close to the original myth, which might explain why the film departs from the good-and-evil narrative that Western audiences might expect; there’s no real villain, the narrative is quite episodic, and there is, in this version at least, a religious deus ex machina that makes us believe the film’s intended to be a kind of parable. But kung fu’s a broad church, and there’s no reason that with spectacular enough scenes, there might not be a good time to be had.
Unfortunately, the film’s tonally messy, garish — with every frame crammed with fourth-rate visual effects — and perhaps most crucially for a film in this genre, doesn’t have a single compelling action sequence. It’s not that money hasn’t been spent here; there’s some truly spectacular production design, handsome costumes (from Wong Kar-Wai collaborator William Chang), and a cast of hundreds. But Ching’s approach here seems influenced more by recent Hollywood blockbusters than classics of the genre. The blue screen approach he takes for much of the film can only make one think of Zack Snyder, particular with plentiful speed ramping and fast-cutting, rather than simply letting the fights play out. And there’s actually very little hand-to-hand stuff, instead there’s a lot of jumping around and waving hands, “The Last Airbender“-style (and that’s without going into the shots lifted, nay replicated, from the likes of “Lord of the Rings” and even “2012” — in the case of the latter, we’d have wondered if the filmmakers simply hadn’t licensed the footage, were it not so poorly rendered).
Not all of the effects are terrible. There’s a group of talking animals who are realized at least as well as they might be in, say, a straight-to-video “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” sequel (it seems that the film is aimed at younger audiences, although we’re not sure how that gels with a borderline erotica scene where demons attempt to sort-of-seduce Li’s character). But it gets worse and worse as things go on, until we’re faced with a snake seemingly copy-and-pasted from an Asylum production like “Boa Vs. Python.” It could be forgiven if the film was less reliant on effects, but there is something in every single frame, with a final sequence that basically amounts to two characters flinging pixels at each other. The few moments where the film comes up with memorable images are achieved practically: a series of boats in a canal catapulted into the air in sequence, Li’s disciples amusingly chasing a group of fox puppy demons over rooftops. We hope it’s not a sign that legendary Asian action filmmakers are going all “Green Lantern” on us.
The cast aren’t bad, particularly with Li graduating nicely to gruff older men type roles, Huang and Lam managing to squeeze some pathos out of the seemingly endless back and forth, and Zhang coming close to wringing a smile out of the audience, if not a full blown laugh. But the film’s so manically overstuffed — with genres, with tones, with effects — that both the action and the emotion feels weightless. And the less said about the infuriating wall-to-wall score, the better. Perhaps hardcore Jet Li fans will be able to get some joy out of it, but we’d suspect that even they will struggle with this one. [D]