Those who remain skeptical of the general trend toward computer-generated special effects in big-budget action spectacles will find plenty of ammunition in The Sorcerer and the White Snake, the latest martial-arts fantasy epic from Hong Kong filmmaker/choreographer Ching Siu-tung. Ching is beloved by many for, among other films, 1987’s A Chinese Ghost Story, a still-startling blend of supernatural romance, high-flying action, and freaky horror—but witness the analog splendors in that genre classic, and the many big-scale set pieces in The Sorcerer and the White Snake can’t help but pale by comparison. One can admire the imagination that went into visualizing these sequences, and Ching certainly doesn’t shy away from pulling out all the stops, but ingenuity can only take one so far when the end results come off as weightlessly as they do here.
Based on a classic Chinese legend, The Sorcerer and the White Snake could be best described as a myth of the follies of love—in this case, the romance that develops between the titular demon White Snake, Susu (Eva Huang), and the human Xu Xian (Raymond Lam) after Susu kisses Xu Xian underwater in the midst of a prank and discovers a heretofore unknown curiosity about human love inside her. Of course, Susu hides her true demon form whenever she’s around Xu Xian, which leads to predictably catastrophic results as the titular sorcerer, a ruthless Buddhist abbott named Fahai (Jet Li) who’s made it his mission to prevent all demons from entering into the human world, stops at nothing to capture Susu.
Amid the melodrama and carnage, Susu’s demon friend, the Green Snake Qingqing (Charlene Choi), stands above it all with a pessimistic veneer; seeing the destructive consequences of this forbidden love affair, she confides in a fellow demon toward the end of the film that she would rather not love anyone the way her friend loved Xu Xian. The most interesting aspect of The Sorcerer and the White Snake lies in the extent to which the film seems to share the Green Snake’s skepticism toward love while refusing to stint on the expected operatic passion. In this film, a climactic, tear-laden farewell is juxtaposed with images of monks trying to save each other from drowning. We may cry, but then we start wondering what exactly we’re crying about.
For the most part, though, such ironies are explored with about the same level of depth as the film’s treatment of Fahai’s religious beliefs—which is to say, superficially at best. This brings us back to the action sequences, which seems to be where Ching poured most of his creative energies in the first place. It seems long ago that one could rely on Hong Kong action spectacles like this to at least induce dizzying levels of astonishment at the choreographic splendors on display. You couldn’t believe what Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, or even Jet Li’s younger self were pulling off on screen—and yet, you could still believe what you were seeing was at least somewhat real. Ching himself brought such dazzle to the screen in earlier films like his 1983 debut Duel to the Death and the aforementioned A Chinese Ghost Story. The Sorcerer and the White Snake, on the other hand, looks so glossy, plasticized, and unreal that all you end up thinking about is special effects. State of the art, in this case, is no substitute for soulful craft.