Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Sorcerer and the White Snake

The Sorcerer and the White Snake is one of the most epic movies produced by the Hong Kong cinema industry. It was recently premiered in the United States at the Venice International Film Festival. Based on Ming Dynasty novel, The White Maiden Locked for Eternity in Leifeng Pagoda, it has been the basis for countless stories, books, operas, tv shows, and films. This special effects laden incarnation of the story stars Jet Li, in an amazing joyride that blends kung-fu with a tragic love story, and the best "spiritual action film" to hit the U.S. since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

altIf you want to understand the psychology of love in China, this is the movie to rent - because it's essentially Twilight for nerdy Chinese teenagers. The story begins with the monk Fa Hai (Jet Li) and his disciple Neng Ren (Wen Zhang) as they hunt down a demon "ice harpy", who punishes human men for their infidelities. After a fierce battle, Fahai traps the Ice Harpy with his begging bowl, which has magical properties. They then confine the demon in a vortex in Lei Feng Pagoda. Once this principle that all demons must be punished is established, the primary story begins... two snake demons - one in green and one in white, who manifest as beautiful women - spy on some men who are climbing up the mountain to dig for herbs. The green snake spirit decides to play a trick on one of the men, Xu Xian, scaring him and causing him to fall hundreds of feet into a lake to drown. The other snake spirit, Bai Suzhen (Eva Huang), feels compassion for the man, transforms herself into a human and dives into the waters to save him. Underwater, she kisses him to save his life... shades of Darryl Hannah in the movie Splash. They exchange vital force during the kiss and become karmicly intertwined.

altThe rest of the film is about Bai Suzhen falling in love with Xu Xian, and marrying him, even though demon human marriages are frowned upon. The karmic impact of their marriage is the eruption of a plague of succubus fox spirits in the village they live in - beautiful temptresses who suck the life energy from all the men in the town. Feeling bad about this, Bai Suzhen imbues her husband's curative tonic with her own life energy – erasing centuries of her accumulated spiritual power. This is followed by a somewhat fanatical Fa Hai hunting down and killing any and all demons in his path. However, when he sees that she gave up her life force to cure the villagers, he decides to let her go, threatening that the next time he sees her, he'll vanquish her... Then, to make matters worse, his disciple Neng Ren gets bitten by a bat-demon, and slowly transforms into a demon as well, which causes Fa Hai to pause and develop some sympathy for the demon. Seeing his own beloved disciple as a demon, he is unable to vanquish him... and simply tells Neng Ren to run away. At one level, this film is a parable about tolerance for "forbidden love" – possibly even a veiled message from the cultural ministry of China signaling that homosexuality should be tolerated in modern China.

However, there is a deeper layer of meaning in the film, which is about the spiritual man's quest to overcome his shadow. Even though the love story is between Xu Xian and Bai Suzhen, most of the time Xu Xian stands around like the hapless country bumpkin he is... and the real contest is between the snake demon Bai Suzhen and the monk Fa Hai. This is a battle between a monk - the archetype that represents man's spiritual nature - against a snake demon - that represents our shadow and powerful sexual unconscious. This is no ordinary snake, or a trickster offering a bite of the apple of the tree of knowledge - this snake demon has meditated for a thousand years to gain immense magical powers. She is able to telekinetically control millions of gallons of water, flood a temple, and manifest a giant 500 foot snake to battle with. The final plot twist comes when a wounded and nearly defeated Fa Hai, showing the many wounds she has inflicted, essentially admits defeat, and painfully assumes a meditation pose to accept her final death blow... But suddenly, he understands, and enters a state of divine grace and transcendent enlightenment. He suddenly regenerates from his wounds, develops 108 palms to repel all her magic, and emerges from the battle triumphant.

In the end, Bai Suzhen, trapped in the Leifeng pagoda, bows and offers a prayer to the Buddha and accepts her punishment, begging for one last embrace with her beloved. The Buddha is compassionate, and Fa Hai lifts a stone pagoda - with his bare hands - so she can escape her prison for one last tearful goodbye kiss with Xu Xian. And how does the film end? With Fa Hai and his disciple, now a full fledged demon, happily walking off into the sunset together.

Incidentially, in the original novel, Bai Suzhen is guided by the Goddess of Mercy, and is a demon who longs to become a goddess by doing good deeds... mainly bringing rain to drought stricken areas. To accumulate merit faster, she and her sister spirit, the green snake demon, transform themselves into women and travel to the human realm. They encounter Fa Hai, a fanatical Taoist sorcerer who believes that every demon is inherently evil and must be destroyed. He eventually traps her in Leifeng Pagoda. This film modifies the original story quite a bit, changing the sorceror into a more likeable Buddhist monk who could be a protagonist, as this allows the film to be someone less complicated than your typical Chinese love story that spans two or three reincarnations.

It's a great flick, that isn't as artistically moving as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but still, it has merit and is worth a rental, especially if you're into seeking the tantric meaning embedded in the many layers of chewy goodness that the film offers. Four Om's for this one!

One last factoid: Leifeng Pagoda is a real place, on the beautiful West Lake in Hangzhou. Because of the legend of the White Snake, a superstition emerged that promised that bricks from the tower would repel illness or prevent miscarriage. As a result, so many people stole bricks from the tower that it eventually collapsed in 1924. Fortunately, it was rebuilt in 2002. In 2001, before it was rebuilt and the foundation was exposed, archaeologists using radar discovered a mausoleum under the pagoda, and excavated to find many treasures, most notably a rare and powerful gold-plated relic of the Buddha. Now you know what to say if you're visiting West Lake during a tour of China.

Total Size 600 MB (.mkv)
Subtitle: Indonesia, English

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