For a moment it seemed like this one was going to be so bad it might just be good. But…nah, it’s just bad. With the mushometer maxed out, and a score that starts on overdrive and heads for overbearing, this ridiculously melodramatic tale of forbidden love tries to bury its narrative flaws with a colourful coating of CGI – but ends up a shiny glutinous mess.
Based on an ancient Chinese legend that has found its way into opera, theatre and the big screen more than once before, this version of the myth by Hong-Kong martial-arts director Sui-Tung Ching, sees Jet Li playing the central character of the sorcerer – a fighting monk named Reverend Fahai – on a mission to rid the world of demons. For most of the story he’s up against the female White Snake (Eva Huang) who has taken human form and fallen in love with a mortal. Tsk, Tsk – we just cant have any of that, now can we?
Opening with a distinctively engaging computer-game style, we follow the snake sisters (White and Green) as they playfully enchant some hapless men, White Snake saving a handsome herbalist from drowning with an underwater kiss that unites their “vital essence”. (You get to see the kiss several times in slow motion from infinite angles with lots of soaring violins. It’s an important moment.) From there it’s two lovers trying hard to do be together while Rev. Fahai acts the party-pooper, reminding White Snake that it’s just not meant to be: demons are demons, men are men, and inter-species exchanges of vital essence are not about to happen on his watch, no! However, with White Snake not only beautiful, devoted to her man, generous (she sacrifices more of her vital essence to save a village from disease) and positively sparkling company, there’s not much sympathy for poor old Fahia – his stuffy Confucian morality frankly working hard against the intention to position his character as all round good guy.
The acting is appallingly melodramatic, particularly when it comes to the mad sub-plot romance of Green Snake (Charlene Choi) and Neng Ren (Wen Zhang) the young disciple of Fahia who slowly turns into a bat. Work that out. The martial arts sequences are disappointing, mainly overwhelmed by unconvincing CGI, and Jet Li fans should probably wait for his next outing – a Hark Tsui film that is sure to have a lot more vital essence than this.