Thursday, 14 April 2016

Film Review - 'The Sorcerer and the White Snake'

The idea of a martial-arts star of Jet Li's calibre starring in a film that sees in doing battle with giant demon-snakes is the sort of thing that strikes me as instantly appealing. Honestly, it's the sort of thing that I didn't even know I wanted to see until the moment I learnt that seeing it was actually possible. It is exactly the sort of over-the-top visual spectacle that has always appealed to that part of me that stubbornly refuses to 'grow up' - and, it's the sort of thing that could make even the most mediocre film at least somewhat entertaining, for me. Though, of course, I would also want any film that actually offered up this sort of unique viewing experience to, also, actually be 'good'.

Well, The Sorcerer and the White Snake is the film in question, here - a film which promises to offer up exactly this sort of spectacle. Though, of course, it would hardly be fair to go in assuming that this is all that the film has to offer. Placing itself firmly in the realm of Chinese legend, The Sorcerer and the White Snake introduces us to a world where demons and humans exist in parallel to each other - aware of each other, but kept strictly separate. Some of these supernatural creatures are dangerous, and outright malevolent, but many others are capable of compassion (one thing to keep in mind is that 'demon' is just the term used for translation - these are creatures of Chinese folk-lore, who don't have much in common with the classic, Western, idea of 'demons') - but, regardless, the common wisdom seems to be that allowing these two, very different, worlds to mingle never ends well.

The basis of this film, in particular, is the well-known Chinese legend/fairy-tale of a demon known as the White Snake (Shengyi Huang), who takes human form when she becomes infatuated with a mortal man, the healer Xu Xian (Raymond Lam). It is also the story of the demon-hunting sorcerer, Fahai - a man who has devoted his life to keeping the two worlds separate.

If you go into this film, as I did, with little more than a brief outline of the plot, than it can be difficult to know exactly what to expect with this film. On the one hand, Jet Li's presence in the film would seem to suggest a fair amount of martial arts action - and, sure, that is certainly a key feature of the film. After all, the idea of a film starring Jet Li where he doesn't fight anyone just seems strange to me. On top of that, the basic premise of a sorcerer battling demons naturally suggest the possibility of some highly imaginative action sequences.

One thing that will quickly become clear, though, is that action isn't actually the primary intent of The Sorcerer and the White Snake. For one thing, despite what the film's opening scenes (and, even, its title) would suggest, Jet Li's demon-hunting sorcerer, Fahai, is not really the focus of the story, here. It simply isn't about him. Instead, the true focus of the film is on the relationship between Susu, the titular White Snake in her human form, and the mortal man she has become infatuated with. The Sorcerer and the White Snake is a love story, at heart - and, within that context, Fahai's single-minded devotion to demon-hunting ultimately pushes him into the role of the film's true antagonist.

There are villainous demons featured throughout the film, of course, but it hopefully shouldn't count as any sort of spoiler to point out that the White Snake, herself, isn't necessarily one of them. This distinction wouldn't really be worth stressing, were it not for the fact that much of the film's marketing seemed insistent on painting as pure martial arts action, with Jet Li as the designated 'hero' - which, while an entertaining enough prospect in itself, just isn't accurate. Arguable, the story that the film is trying to tell is, ultimately, something more interesting than the straight-forward action I had expected, going in.

There is, admittedly, an oddly disjointed quality to this film in some areas, though. While the film's true focus is always on the White Snake and Xu Xian, there are also scenes included showing some of Fahai's more straight-forward demon-hunting adventures. When the focus is on Susu and Xu Xian, particularly early on, the film is filled with attempts at light-hearted humour that range from successful, and genuinely funny, to vaguely embarrassing. One scene, in particular, features other demons trying to pass as human as they pose as the White Snake's family. Honestly, it wouldn't have looked out of place in a Disney film - but, the cringe-inducing performances given by the supporting cast, in this scene, made it difficult for me to get through. Fahai's demon-hunting exploits, by contrast, begin to look like they could have been taken from a completely different film - and, the transition between these two halves can be very jarring.

But, of course, the line separating these two halves begin to blur once Fahai and the White Snake finally meet - and, the sorcerer's determination to keep the two worlds separate seems to be pushing things toward an inevitable conflict.

Unfortunately, while not without its positive elements , The Sorcerer and the White Snake is still a film let down by a variety of flaws. The odd blend of fantasy-based romantic comedy with fantasy-based martial arts action is very jarring, at first - though, to be fair, it does become more manageable as the film's two distinct halves begin to blend. The film's somewhat awkward attempts at humour, though, are something that the audience is simply going to have to try to endure. Perhaps most disappointing, though, is the fact that film's more epic-in-scale action sequences are let down by some very conspicuous CGI, and awkward staging. In the end, the promised spectacle that initially drew my attention to this film was, unfortunately, one of its most disappointing elements.

At the same time, though, the true heart of the film was clearly intended to be the relationship between Susu and Xu Xian, anyway - and, that was played convincingly enough to win the audience's sympathy. By the end, the seemingly inevitable conflict between the sorcerer and the White Snake feels like something tragic and unnecessary.

Ultimately, The Sorcerer and the White Snake is a film that I managed to enjoy despite its flaws - though, I also have to acknowledge the fact that it is a film which could have been so much better.

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