Apparently Buddha's an asshole.
I know, right? It was news to me as well. I was under the impression he was a pretty chill deity until I watched Jet Li's recent fantasy martial arts flick The Sorcerer and the White Snake, based on an ancient Chinese fairy tale, in which a young doctor and a sexy snake demon fall in love, and are perfectly happy and not hurting anyone, at least until Buddhist monk Jet Li comes and completely ruins their lives in Buddha's name.
Unfortunately, this incredibly bizarre twist is the only thing that sets The Sorcerer and the White Snake apart from all the other fantasy martial arts movie Jet Li has been churning out over the last few years. The fighting is ho-hum, the special effects are all stuff we've seen before, and Jet Li is merely going through the paces. But if you want to see a movie which seems to think the religious persecutor is somehow the hero? Well, you might as well buy your ticket now. Spoilers ahead…
Let's start with the title. There's not really a sorcerer in The Sorcerer and the White Snake. Jet Li's Buddhist monk Fahai can do magic, but it's of the standard super-powered Buddhist monk variety commonly seen in these ancient Chinese fantasy flicks. There is a White Snake, named Susu, who can transform into a very attractive woman, but prefers to hang out in a top-half-of-a-woman-with-a-giant-snake-body mode with her sister Qingqing, who happens to be a Green Snake. And the film's protagonist — because I refuse to call Jet Li's Fahai anything other than the antagonist — is Xu Xian, the young herbalist/doctor Susu falls in love with.
The problem is not that Susu's a demon, it's that Fahai (along with his goofy sidekick Neng Ren) is a demon hunter – who believes that all demons bring evil to men, no matter what. And the movie very much appears to be on his side –- he's played by Jet Li, who is traditionally the hero; he's a Buddhist monk, also traditionally good guys; he has superpowers, given to him by Buddha, who is generally considered a pretty benevolent god. And certainly he fights several bad demons during the course of the movie, including vampire-bat-demons preying on a town as well as fox demons who are preying on a different town, so he's clearly doing some good work.
But here's where it gets tricky. Because this is what the "evil" snake-demon women do:
• Qingqing actually prevents Fahai's sideklick Neng Ren, who is turning into a bat-demon after one bit him, from committing suicide. In fact, she helps him adjust to his new life as a demon, after Fahai completely abandons him. (She also makes him drink a thermos of blood she carries around for no apparent reason, but whatever.)
• Susu finds the doctor, marries him, and the two are blissfully happy. And when Xu Xian makes medicine for a town afflicted by the fox demons' illness, she even puts her own vital essence into the medicine, to hep the villagers become well.
And that's all these done before Fahai sees the "vital essence" in the medicine, realizes Xu Xian's wife must be a demon, gives Xu Xian a magic dagger, and tells Susu to get the hell out of Dodge before he exorcizes her. She tells him her husband is happy. Fahai doesn't care. She points out she actually loves him. Fahai still doesn't care. Then he asks her if Xu Xian would love her if he knew she was a snake. A valid question, admittedly, but wait for it…
Fahai comes to their house later that very night to destroy Susu. It's done in such a way that Fahai doesn't see his wife transform, but only sees a giant flying white snake; being rather understandably freaked out, he strikes it with the dagger. When he later realizes he's stabbed his wife, he decides to go steal a magic "spirit root" to heal her. Meaning Xu Xian does find out his wife was a snake demon, and he loves her anyways, and Fahai just ruined the lives of a perfectly happy couple.
Admittedly, after Xu Xian steals the spirit root and gets possessed by several dozen demons (apparently the root is the key holding ancient China's Ecto-Containment Unit closed for some reason), and Fahai and all his monk buddies start to perform an exorcism on him, Susu kind of… floods the entire valley, destroying all the temples and killing many, many monks. But that's very specifically her response to Fahai refusing to let her see Xu Xian in the middle of his exorcism (which Fahai says will kill him, although that's totally a lie), and remember, Fahai started this.
Only at the very end, when Susu and Fahai have battle in most epic-but-somehow-mediocre duel put to film in the last six months or so, does Fahai wonder if he's been a little too prejudiced against demons, and maybe a few of them aren't completely evil. Suddenly, the light of Buddha shines down upon him and he realizes yes, he has been a bit too rigid. But here's the kicker –- he still traps Susu in Lei Fang Pagoda so that she and Xu Xian never get to see each other again. What the fuck?
Unfortunately, this bizarre agenda is one of only two notable things about The Sorcerer and the White Snake; the other is a scene in which Fahai fights the Bat-Demon King, which is the most shameless rip-off of the Gandalf/Balrog fight from The Two Towers ever put to film, complete with the two fighting while plummeting down an infinitely long tunnel into a giant cavern with a sea of lava. Except it looks far worse.
Actually, all the movie's CG is mediocre at best — which is especially problematic because there's so damn much of it. There's a few decent demon-vs.-asshole Buddhist monk fight scenes, especially at the end, when Susu is bringing all her water-controlling powers to kick Fahai's ass, but rarely does the film's creativity surpass the 2005 video game-esque computer effects. Even that might have been okay if the fighting within the CG was cool, but it's rote and uninspired, and shockingly rare (combatants mostly stand there and pose while the special effects do their work for them). In the rare occasion that Jet Li needs to throw a punch, he looks as bored with these fantasy martial arts flicks as we are.
If Li had simply been a villain — or if the movie had allowed him to be –- White Snake could have surpassed a lot of the limitations it sets upon itself; one genuinely interesting performance can make up for a lot of mediocre special effects. In one version of the original Chinese fairy tale, Fahai actually is the villain — although he's a vengeful terrapin demon who takes the form of a monk, rather than an actual monk. But I can't help but think that would have been a better choice for everyone: for Li, who'd have a reason to act; for viewers, who'd have something unique to watch; and even for Xu Xian and Susu, because as shitty as it would be to have your marriage destroyed by a terrapin, that would still be significantly less obnoxious that discovering Buddha thinks you're living in sin.