Film: Emperor And The White Snake
UK Release date: Out now
Director: Siu-Tung Ching
Starring: Jet Li, Shengyi Huang, Raymond Lam, Charlene Choi, Zhang Wen
Running time: 100 mins
Reviewer: Adam Wing
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Two beautiful girls live amongst the trees, frolicking in a CGI forest and talking to animals. They could be lovers, they might be sisters (very close sisters), but they frolic all the same - laughing, giggling and slithering through life. One of the girls becomes obsessed with a rather damp excuse for a human being, saves his life and then stalks him for a while. The other girl longs for companionship and befriends a dim-witted demon hunter. The dim-witted hunter is bitten by a giant bat demon and starts to transform, but the beautiful girl vows to teach him the ways of a human/demon hybrid – as you do I guess.
Perhaps I should’ve mentioned that this is a Jet Li movie, with the martial arts legend appearing alongside a long line of CGI nastiness, playing the part of a demon slaying monk. Perhaps I should also mention that the two girls are snakes, one white and one green, and that not since the hit movie Splash have we witnessed such alluring scaly-skinned specimens. Welcome to the wonderful world of Emperor And The White Snake. That’s right folks, The Legend of the White Snake is born again, with Eva Huang (Kung Fu Hustle) starring as a lovelorn demon and action superstar Jet Li playing the part of a Buddhist monk – a Buddhist monk who belongs in another movie entirely, but we’ll let that go for now.
Raymond Lam (Jade and the Pearl) joins them on their crazy adventure, with Wen Zhang (Ocean Heaven) and the ever-adorable Charlene Choi (Twins Effect) making up the chasing pack. Emperor And The White Snake was one of the highest-grossing Chinese films of the year, but I’m guessing that has more to do with the fact that nothing else was showing at the time. Jet Li’s latest is blessed with some terrible (maybe we should go with over-ambitious) special effects, especially when it comes to the snakes of the title, but in the films defence, some of the CGI works really well, and there are times when Emperor And The White Snake looks absolutely stunning too.
One day, white snake Suzhen (Eva Huang) plays a trick on herbalist Xu Xian (an incredibly wet Raymond Lam) and he nearly drowns. After saving his life with a kiss, Suzhen falls in love with him, but Buddhist monk Fahai (Jet Li) isn’t having any of it. Fahai doesn’t mess about when it comes to demon slaying you see, and he’s got zero tolerance for love and romance. With the help of his trusty disciple Neng Ren (an incredibly dim-witted Wen Zhang) he plans to rid the world of all demon types – even the hot ones. When Fahai discovers that Xu Xian has married Suzhen without knowing what she really is, he plots to keep them worlds apart. Suzhen isn’t about to take that lying down though (even if, by definition, she is a creature that does lie down all day), and she’ll do whatever it takes to keep their love alive.
Jet Li fans have probably realised that this isn’t your typical Jet Li fantasy action picture. The biggest challenge the ageing star has to face is taking on the (not so) special effects that flood the movie at every turn, and guess what? Jet Li loses. It’s a family picture in every sense of the word, with talking animals, cutesy romance and over-reaching sentiment taking the place of pulse-pounding action and riveting martial arts choreography. Jet Li is a spectator for the most part, called upon to kick some serious demon ass but doing it with little to no personality. The rest of the cast are asked to bring the film to life, but it’s the girls that come out on top, with Eva Huang’s feisty serpent lady putting the rest of the characters to shame. Charlene Choi makes the most of a limited supporting role, but the male leads fail to register in a film that requires charm, personality and chemistry. Wen Zhang is the films chief offender, coming across like a child at all times, mildly irritating at best and mistaking the art of gurning for humour.
What the actors lack in depth, characterisation and warmth, Ching Siu Tung makes up for in overreaching orchestral manoeuvres. Emperor And The White Snake shoots for the moon when it comes to drama, romance and turmoil, but misses the mark completely, deflecting off the surface of emotional investment. Both the score and the performances are obscenely inflated, and the impact is humorous rather than heartfelt. Having said that, even though you would never mistake Emperor And The White Snake for a good movie, the pace never lets up and there’s imagination in every frame. It’s lightweight and frothy and it doesn’t engage in the way that it should, but Jet Li’s latest could never be labelled ‘boring’ either.
A family film with talking animals, relentless CGI and blossoming romance, Jet Li’s fantasy flick is not to be confused with quality filmmaking. What Emperor And The White Snake lacks in electrifying martial arts action, it makes up for in distracting visuals, OTT performances and two very attractive snake demons. It’s a bit of a mess to be honest, but if you leave your brain at the door you will find something to enjoy – even if it is just a talking turtle.