Remaking Hong Kong cinema’s greatest hits seems to have been all the rage lately. Last year we had Wilson Yip’s swing at remaking A Chinese Ghost Story and Tsui Hark’s second go at King Hu’s classic Dragon Inn. To be fair, Tsui’s Flying Swords of Dragon Gate ended up as more a sequel to New Dragon Gate Inn than a remake, and it was considerably more fun than I was expecting — I’ll write it up when I get a chance to take another look at it.
And then there’s this film, Ching Siu Tung’s adaptation of Chinese legend Madame White Snake. This story has been adapted many times into everything from opera to TV, but the version most familiar to HK film fans will almost certainly be Tsui Hark’s 1993 film Green Snake, with Joey Wong, Maggie Cheung and Vincent Zhao. While Sorcerer presents a different take on the legend, and recenters the film on White Snake (the original main character), the influence of Tsui’s film is undeniable, particularly on the visuals.
On to our characters. Abbot Fahai (Jet Li) and his mawkish apprentice Neng Ren (Wen Zhang) are Buddhist priests that spend their time hunting demons; the film begins with them dispatching an ice harpy (Vivian Hsu, in a quick cameo), confining her in a pagoda to while away the centuries until she’s willing to behave herself. Eva Huang and Charlene Choi play White Snake/Susu and Green Snake/Qingqing respectively, two snake spirits with a certain curiosity for the human world. The two sisters encounter a hardworking young herbalist, Xu Xian (Raymond Lam), who catches Susu’s eye: both snakes take the form of young women and enter the human realm so that Susu can pursue him.
Abbot Fahai, of course, takes a dim view of human-demon relations. Once the snake sisters come to his attention, he bends his considerable will towards making Susu give up Xu Xian, by force if necessary.
The Sorcerer and the White Snake is crammed full of action, much more than I had expected. Vincent Zhao in Green Snake had the luxury of being able to concentrate on the two ladies for most of the film; Jet Li and Wen Zhang have to fight their way through legions of demons on the side. These scenes dominate the film and make extremely heavy use of CGI, something that made me yearn a little for the rubber monster suits and trickery with wires of times past. Jet Li stamps some welcome authority and presence on the single-minded (and occasionally irascible) monk Fahai in his more dramatic scenes, and Wen Zhang is open-faced and mildly buffoonish as his assistant.
Eva Huang and Charlene Choi give brighter, less sensual performances than Joey Wong and Maggie Cheung did in Green Snake; a large part of this, I suspect, was a conscious decision by the filmmakers to appeal to a wider, younger audience. This would also explain the menagerie of cute animal spirit sidekicks that show up partway through the film, squeaking and rumbling their approval. (Said spirits do provide for some funny cameos, though, from Miriam Yeung to Lam Suet!)
Raymond Lam is charismatic as Xu Xian, who’s a good deal more confident in this adaptation, though he’s got less to do here than the other (more than human) characters, what with their sutra-powered fireballs and ability to control the weather.
Sorcerer has everything: cutesy animals for the youngsters, Jet Li righteously striking down computer-generated monsters for the action fans, and a timeless love story for the romantics. I came away feeling that it was too much everything, and that perhaps dispensing with some of the demon-hunting in favour of more time with the film’s core characters would have made for a better film. The CGI is also quite intrusive, much more so than in several other recent big Chinese films, and this perhaps heightened this impression.
Nonetheless, it’s a great big film full of spectacle, a lot of talent involved on both sides of the lens, and it’s probably been ages since you’ve seen a Ching Siu Tung film.