The Sorcerer and the White Snake is based on a popular Chinese folklore about a pair of snake sisters, one white and one green, that has cultivated spiritually for hundreds of years and gained human forms in the process. The Chinese believes that animals, like humans, are capable of emotions and can achieve spiritual powers through persistent practice of Taoism to propel themselves to higher levels of consciousness. This strengthens their spirits and in time grants them supernatural powers, like the ability to shape-shift or take on human forms.
In The Sorcerer and the White Snake, Susu (played by Eva Huang) and Qingqing (Charlene Choi) are snake demons with magical powers. SuSu is a thousand year old white snake while Qingqing is a five hundred year old green snake. Both are seen at the beginning of the film frolicking in the meadows when they spot an herbalist, Xu Xian (Raymond Lam), picking herbs at the foot of a mountain with his friends.
QingQing decides to scare Xu Xian in her true snake form just for fun. As Xian climbs a mountain cliff, his unexpected encounter with the green snake startles him and so he falls off the cliff into the lake below. Being the gentler and more compassionate of the two, Susu quickly transforms herself into human form and dives into the water to save Xian by kissing him to give him her life force. Unbeknownst to either one, the kiss leaves a lasting impression on both of them and SuSu finds herself thinking about Xian all the time. So smitten with him, Susu concocts a plan with QingQing for her and Xian to meet during the Lantern Festival. The plan works and Susu ends up marrying Xian that night.
Meanwhile, a sorcerer monk named Fahai (played by Jet Li) and his assistant Neng Ren (Zhang Wen) are determined to protect the world from all sorts of demons. Any demons they encounter in their travels will be captured inside a magic bowl and later transferred into a magic mirror housed inside the Lei Feng Pagoda, guarded by a thousand year old talking ginseng root. Fahai eventually becomes aware of the unnatural relationship between Xian and Susu and threatens Susu to leave Xian and return to the mountains from whence she came or he will have to separate them by brute force.
During the Dragon Boat Festival, Xian brings home wine and food for them to dine that night. It is by tradition that everyone drinks realgar wine on this day. Realgar is also a common household remedy for driving away snakes and scorpions in people’s homes and backyards. Unbeknownst to Susu that the wine Xian offers her contains realgar, she downs it in a heartbeat. Soon enough, the adverse effect takes its toll on SuSu and forces her to reveal her true snake form, which startles Xian who ends up stabbing her with a spirit dagger given to him by Fahai earlier in the film for protection. What follows is a corny scene that uses CGI to depict the large white snake shedding tears as it intently stares back at Xian. At this instant, Fahai and his disciples arrive to collect the white snake, but Susu manages to escape heavily wounded. Relieved that the snake has run away, Xian then questions Fahai for the whereabouts of Susu. The look on Xian’s face is priceless when Fahai tells him that Susu is the white snake.
The rest of the story tells of Xian’s courage and determination to retrieve the magical ginseng root to save Susu while inadvertently unleashing the demons inside the mirror at Lei Feng Pagoda. This reckless behavior yields dire consequences for both Xian and Susu. The final showdown is an epic battle between the two snakes and Fahai, where the snakes conjure up a violent storm that leaves the entire town flooded with hundreds of people dead. This crime does not go unpunished, and Susu will have to pay the price and make the ultimate sacrifice in the name of true love.
The story is enchanting and the film impresses with non-stop action and breathtaking fight choreography. An aging Jet Li still electrifies as he fights an endless battle with many different demonic beings such as the stunning ice harpy (Vivian Hsu), a colony of vampire bat demons and a retinue of seductive fox vixens. The movie is laden with gorgeous visuals. Many of the scenes are abundantly filled with beautiful bright colors that are truly appealing to the visual senses. Unfortunately, this film also suffers from an over-use of CGI, which makes many things look fake and cheap, like the rendering of the snakes’ bodies. However, The Sorcerer and the White Snake may still be worth checking out for the great performances and the interesting take on the famous Chinese legend. The film has the feel of watching a live-action anime or seeing a Japanese Role-Playing Game (JRPG) brought to life on screen.
The Sorcerer and the White Snake is now out on Blu-Ray and DVD. The 2013 version, released by Magnet Releasing, contains the director’s cut catered to North American audiences.