J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

NYAFF ’19: White Snake


Blanca and Verta are like the Clooney Sisters of demon snakes. God help the mister who comes between Verta and her sister—especially if he is a measly mortal—but God help the sister who comes between Blanca and her [hu]man. The ancient Chinese legend that inspired Tsui Hark and numerous Chinese operas gets an animated prequel treatment in Amp Wong & Zhao Ji’s White Snake, which screens today at the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Blanca is a restless snake demon. Perhaps that is why the snake demon queen dispatches her to assassinate the evil Taoist general, who has been rounding up snakes to drain their life force in order to attain powers of immortality for the emperor. The mission is not a success. Blanca barely manages to escape, but when she come to in a village of human snake-hunters, she has temporarily lost her memory.

Ah Xuan is not much of a snake-hunter, but he is a stout-hearted lad, so he and Blanca inevitably fall in love. Unfortunately, their temporary romance will not last. Blanca’s enchanted hairpin and the jealous Verta will bring her back to reality and the cold hard fact humans and demons cannot mix. Of course, Ah is willing to trade in his humanity, but by the time he returns as a minor demon with a puppy dog tale, he will find his old human village trapped in the crossfire of a war between the snake demons and the General’s forces.

Ah also has a talking dog, Dodou, so you know you can’t go too far wrong with White Snake. It also boasts some of the most impressive Chinese animation yet (representing Warner Brothers’ first animated Chines co-production), even eclipsing Big Fish & Begonia. The main characters are definitely attractive and heroic looking, but the grand natural vistas and fantasyscapes are truly awesome. The humor is a bit hit-or-miss, but it is mercifully used sparingly.

Plus, it is weirdly fascinating to parse the meanings behind a film that pitches the Taoism of the Darth Vader-like General versus the Buddhism of the Demon Snakes (besides Blanca and Verta, most of them are pretty creepy). However, the film clearly suggests there is more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in the Communist Party’s philosophy.

White Snake has some wildly cool martial arts sequences and its animation is consistently top-notch. Unfortunately, it shares the shortcoming of most fantasy films and anime, when the climax largely jettisons the human element in favor of a maelstrom of fire balls and death rays, whirling about in a visual blur. Still, that is a minor complaint that is not unique to White Snake. Highly recommended for fans of animation, wuxia, and fantasy films alike, White Snake screens today (7/7) as part of NYAFF ’19 and for those who will be in Montreal later in the month, it screens on July 27th during the upcoming Fantasia Film Festival.

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