The Sorcerer and the White Snake (Bai she chuan shuo)


Not all the great visuals are CGI.

Not all the great visuals are CGI.

(2011) Martial Arts Fantasy (Magnet) Jet Li, Raymond Lam, Eva Huang, Charlene Choi, Zhang Wen, Vivian Hsu, Miriam Yeung Chin Wah (voice) Kar-Ying Law, Suet Lam (voice), Chapman To, Wu Jiang (voice), Gao Hai Bo, Yin You Can, Li Dan, Han Dong. Directed by Siu-Tung Ching

China has a rich and varied history of lore and legend from which they periodically draw inspiration for their films. Fantasy is huge in China, and with a whole pantheon of demons, monsters and God-like creatures to choose from, it’s no wonder that some of the best fantasy films in recent years have come from there. So where does this one stand.

A young herb-gatherer with ambitions of one day becoming a doctor named Xu Xian (R. Lam) is observed picking herbs in the bucolic mountains by White Snake (Huang), a thousand-year-old snake demon who is curious about humans. Her mischievous sister Green Snake (Choi) decides to play a trick on poor old Xu, appearing to him as he climbs up a particularly treacherous section of the mountain which startles the would-be physician so badly that he falls off the mountain and into the lake below. White, realizing that the herb gatherer will drown because of her sister’s prank, goes down into the lake in human form and kisses Xu, not only imparting oxygen to the young man but also part of her vital essence.

Xu can’t stop thinking about his savior nor can White stop thinking about Xu much to Green’s amused disgust. With the dragon boat festival in full swing, White decides she needs to see Xu and Green somewhat bemusedly agrees to help.

Fahai (Li), abbot of the Lei Feng Pagoda, has spent his life tracking down and capturing demons. His apprentice Neng Ren (Wen) is a little bit impetuous and not nearly as strong as his master. While chasing a group of bat demons, Neng meets up with Green without realizing she’s  a demon. White at last with Green’s help finds Xu and decides to reveal to him that she is the one that saved him that day. The two wind up getting married.

This is something Fahai cannot allow as it violates every principle of human-demon relations. Only ill can come of this and he does everything in his power to prevent the union from continuing. White’s love for Xu will have devastating consequences both for him, the Pagoda and possibly for all of China unless Fahai can make things right.

Ching is best known for directing Chinese Ghost Story along with being an action choreographer on several well-known Chinese films. Here he pulls out all the stops in a movie that is drenched with CGI as animated demons, sometimes in the form of their animal totems and sometimes in human shape (the Asian cut of the film features much more of the latter; the American cut has more of the former which is a bit jarring as they come off as kind of Disneyesque creatures with juvenile voices).

Li has progressed into more gruff old man kinds of roles – a decade ago he would have been the herbalist. Although he is no longer as youthful as he once was, he is still as graceful a martial artist as has ever been on the screen and his moves are still just as fluid and economical as they ever were. Plus he has the experience of decades of screen time not to mention his own natural charisma that you just can’t teach.

Lam is a big star in the East but little known here, but he makes for an engaging Xu. His character is a bit naive, a bit unobservant and a bit of a bumbler but fiercely loyal and remarkably brave and selfless. Lam conveys all of that with an easygoing charm. He doesn’t have quite the martial arts proficiency of Li (but in all fairness very few people on the planet do – including those who are martial arts masters) but he pulls off his fight scenes pretty well.

Like most Chinese heroines Huang has an ethereal beauty that is breathtaking. Her sensuality is more coy than overt, a bit schoolgirl-ish at times but there’s no denying her emotional intensity, particularly in her last scenes of the film. I’ve always been partial to Michelle Yeoh among Asian actresses but Huang certainly is one to watch.

Nearly every scene is laden with special effects of the CGI variety. They are less concerned with the realistic nature of CGI in the east than they are here so in some ways the effects look less practiced than they do on major Hollywood films but they get the job done. The fight scenes, surprisingly, are less compelling; the choreography is almost an afterthought and there isn’t a lot of care given to those scenes seemingly, which is extremely disappointing.

Still, this is a movie worth seeing. It’s available on VOD right now and in theaters in selected cities. Martial arts fans will no doubt be making a beeline to see anything with Li in it to begin with but to see a major production such as this with such a venerated director. This isn’t the best work by either of them, but it’s good enough to take the time to find it.

REASONS TO GO: Somewhat sweet-natured and inventive. Always good to see Li.

REASONS TO STAY: Fight scenes are disappointingly banal. Special effects not up to Western standards.

FAMILY VALUES:  Action of a fantasy variety, a few images that might be too disturbing for the very young and a bit of sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Li complained later that this was one of his most tiring roles because most of his fighting opponents were women for whom he’d have to hold back some but who would go all out on him.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/10/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 21% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100; the reviews are pretty dismal.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hero

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Cinema of the Heart 2013 Day One

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Sorority Row


Sorority Row

Most sorority sisters will tell you that a sorority house is just a series of excuses to dress up in lingerie.

(2009) Slasher Horror (Summit) Briana Evigan, Leah Pipes, Rumer Willis, Jamie Chung, Audrina Partridge, Carrie Fisher, Julian Morris, Margo Harshman, Matt O’Leary. Directed by Stewart Hendler

The slasher movie is a time-honored tradition that usually involves a mysterious, hooded or masked maniac, lots of women in lingerie, bikinis, miniskirts or nothing at all and a series of grisly but imaginative murders. The 1983 opus The House on Sorority Row combined all of these elements and while not a classic of the genre, was certainly one of its better moments.

Flash forward to 2009 and an all-new rendition of it, mostly starring ladies from television shows (Audrina Partridge from “The Hills,” Leah Pipes from “Terminator: The Sarah Connors Chronicles”) or low-rent movies (Briana Evigan from Step Up 2, Jamie Chung from Dragonball: Evolution) with daughters of the famous (Rumer Willis – daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, Evigan – daughter of “BJ and the Bear’s” Greg Evigan). It would seem to be a winning mix.

The sisters of the Theta Pi sorority at Rosman College (the original party school) decide to pull a stunt on the cheating boyfriend of Megan (Partridge) by convincing him that the date rape drug they supplied him with had caused an overdose, after which they would have to dispose of the body. This takes place at a sorority house party in which ingénues in lingerie stage beer chugging contests, pillow fights in a scenario that could only take place in the fevered imagination of an adolescent male who yearns for the opportunity to see a bare breast up close and personal – or the mind of a cynical Hollywood screenwriter who is catering to him.

The prank goes horribly wrong when the panicky frat boy, wanting to make sure the “dead” Megan is truly dead, shoves a tire iron into her chest with lethal force. The shocked sisters are bullied by Jessica (Pipes), the queen bee of the crew, to toss the body down the mine shaft (which was what they had convinced the frat boy they were going to do in the first place) and Never Speak of This Again to Anybody. Yeah, right – as if. Cassidy (Evigan), the brainy one who has the closest thing to a moral center at first refuses but is peer pressured into reluctantly agreeing to it.

Months later as the group prepares for their graduation party, they begin to get text messages from the victims’ cell phone. Could it be Megan – back from the dead and seeing revenge? Or maybe her creepy sister, who has turned up unexpectedly?  In any case, sisters start turning up sliced and diced by a mysterious hooded figure wielding a tire iron. Now that’s what I call a party.

The clichés are abounding here, and director Hendler doesn’t seem much disposed to straying beyond them. Mostly, the girls have little to do but wear clothes that say less college sorority girl and more slut and scream periodically. While I admit it’s nice to see Carrie Fisher onscreen (as the feisty house mother whose best line is “Do you think you scare me? I run a house with fifty bitches in it!”), the part is so very beneath her. You’d think that Princess Leia would be able to get better parts.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Carlos – this is a slasher movie. Nobody goes to see it for the acting – their target audience just wants boobs and really clever murders, the more gruesome the better. While there are plenty of boobs, where the movie fails to deliver is on the murders. The payoffs are rarely there and even the build-ups are pretty lame. Yes, a couple of the murders are nicely done but the bulk of them are rather anticlimactic. That’s not a word you want to use when describing a slasher flick.

The fact that the movie was profitable is owed more to its low production cost rather than its quality. A word to prospective producers of slasher movies; think how much more profitable your movies would be if you threw a well-scripted, well-executed movie with exciting murder scenes on top of the breasts and lingerie? This movie demonstrates that the market is there for it. Now we just need some filmmakers to deliver on it; unfortunately, these didn’t.

WHY RENT THIS: Some nice scares and a couple of really well-done murders. It’s nice to see Fisher onscreen, even though it’s in a role that’s clearly beneath her.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The concept has been done to death and the movie doesn’t particularly bring anything new to the table. While there are a few good scares, mostly it’s just gruesome.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of violence, plenty of gore, sexuality and nudity, foul language, teen drinking – pretty much the whole gamut.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rosman College, the setting for the movie, is named for Mark Rosman, who wrote and directed the 1983 original and is an executive producer on this film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $27.2M on a $12.5M production budget; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Mechanic (2011)