Americans aren’t the only ones who can deliver limp, emotion-free spectacle. Or, to put more succinctly, just because it’s foreign doesn’t mean it’s any good. The Sorcerer and the White Snake isn’t the worst film I’ve seen this week (Identity Thief… sweet Jesus Identity Thief), but kung-fu fantasy doesn’t get much more routine than this one.
Inspired by a Chinese legend and riffing on superior efforts like Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Sorcerer and the White Snake opts for a family-friendly approach to wuxia romance and adventure. The violence is largely consequence free and the central love story arrives in sloppy PG-rated chunks. Speaking of sloppy, the effects budget needs some serious help and while the overall concepts hold a beautiful visual potential, the film lacks the wherewithal to make good on it. That makes it a strictly-for-the-kiddies affair, puffed up on profundities that its intellectually empty storyline can’t possibly hope to support.
Jet Li emcees the whole thing, playing a Shaolin monk who hunts down demons and banishes them to a magic geode he carries in his satchel. His moral certainty gets a shake when he runs into White Snake (Eva Huang), a spirit who fell in love with a human herbalist (Raymond Lam Fung) and now trying to live out life as a normal woman. That goes against the laws of nature – such unions can only end in tragedy, Li explains – and when she resists, he throws down with all the flying-around-on-wires magic he can muster.
Director Siu-Tung Ching takes his sweet time getting to that, complicated by quests that go nowhere and supporting characters that refuse to integrate with the storyline. Li’s wacky sidekick (Zhang Wen) strikes up a more tempestuous romance with White Snake’s naughty sister Green Snake (Charlene Choi) in a cul-de-sac that all but vanishes after the first half. Similar notions clutter the landscape: White Snake’s talking animal friends, a magic root that brings spirits back from the dead, a pagoda that houses all of the demons when Li’s geode gets full, and so on. Ching gloms them onto the central narrative without any real sense of propriety. Why are they here? What relationship do they have the central narrative? The Sorcerer and the White Snake can’t quite come up with the answers, sending the story higgledy-piggledy all over the cut-rate CGI landscape.
I certainly don’t mind shoddy effects as long as they’re applied with imagination and heart. The Sorcerer and the White Snake has neither, and while the visual concepts retain a certain imagination, they can’t muster the energy to come to life. We find ourselves wondering how tight the effects deadline was rather than the beauty of this universe. The same concept applies to the fight scenes, full of grandeur and pomposity but lacking any danger or excitement. Li sleepwalks through most of it, his characteristic understatement giving way to boredom and ennui.
The underlying ideas carry some inherent logic, with love battling destiny, and two souls from different worlds finding each other, and what we sacrifice for a few brief moments of happiness, and all that. It never offends, but your average Disney films delivers the same ideas with ten times the emotional truth. The Sorcerer and the White Snake feels cheap, not just in its presentation, but in the notions it presumes to explore. It doesn’t actually offend, and undemanding children should find it easy going down, but the rest of us know better. Too much of the film coasts when it should be sprinting, and the remainder is too meager to make up the distance. We’ve seen this movie before, in better clothes and with a much higher IQ. The Sorcerer and the White Snake merely reminds us how rare decent cinema can be… no matter which country it comes from.