Adapted from the same Chinese legend that inspired Tsui Hark’s Green Snake in 1993, Ching Siu-Tung’s The Sorcerer and the White Snake tells of the love between a kindly herbalist (Raymond Lam) and a white snake demon (in human form, that of Eva Huang Shengyi) ; he doesn’t know she’s a snake demon, but abbot Fahai (Jet Li) does. He’s a demon hunter of sorts : when we first meet him, he’s with his assistant Neng Ren (Wen Zhang) vanquishing an ice harpy (Vivian Hsu). Though he can see there is real love between the herbalist and the white snake, Fahai cannot approve of such a union, and issues an ultimatum to the latter. But things get a bit more tangled when Neng Ren himself, having been bitten by a demon, starts taking the appearance of a bat, while falling in love with a green snake demon (Charlene Choi).
Ching Siu-Tung, one of the most respected martial arts choreographers in the industry, can be said to have a much spottier track record as a director. In his filmography you’ll find anything from classics (A Chinese Ghost Story) to complete dreck (Naked Weapon, the Seagal-starring Belly of the Beast), and a lot in between (An Empress and the Warriors, Dr Wai). The Sorcerer and the White Snake belongs to the ‘in between’ category. It is an overly sappy piece of entertainment with risible special effects but it does have some good performances and a welcome if unrefined sense of humor.
Visually, it is a very mixed bag : quite simply, everything real looks great, from the sets to the costumes, photographed lovingly by Venus Keung ; everything computer-generated on the other hand, is eye-gougingly cheesy and fake-looking. Views of Jet Li battling a giant snake on a raging sea or spear-fighting with a red harpy in a snowbound landscape are supposed to be impressive but come off as laughable through subpar special effects that would have been state of the arts in the mid-nineties. This is not helped by the fact that the fighting is entirely non-descript (at least by Hong Kong standards) : most of the time it’s just Jet Li bestirring himself against poorly rendered creatures. As far as martial arts are concerned, the star is completely wasted here.
Luckily, while the love story at the center of the film is pretty sappy and predictable, it is also rather affecting, mainly thanks to a superb performance by Eva Huang Shengyi, who goes from playful to lovesick to angry and determined with subtlety and helps root the film as its real star. Indeed, Jet Li is more of a supporting actor here : he does get to fight a lot, but he has very little dialogue (most of it is just saying “Amitabha”), and while he brings gravitas to his role, he also looks a bit bored, really. The film also benefits from Ching Siu-Tung’s knack for incorporating humor in his films without the jarring tonal shifts that it often entails with lesser directors (A Chinese Ghost Story is a prime example). The comic relief mainly comes from Wen Zhang, who overplays the simpleton role a bit, and Charlene Choi in the cute and mischievous role she can do in her sleep by now.
Long Story Short : Omnipresent laughable special effects and a corny and predictable story weigh The Sorcerer and the White Snake down, in spite of good performances and a welcome sense of humor. **1/2