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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Four-Warned: February 2013


A Good Day to Die Hard

Every month I’m going to look at every movie on the release schedule and try to assign them a numerical value corresponding to how anxious I am to see it. The lower the number, the more I want to see it. A one means I would walk through hell and high water to see it; a four means there’s no interest whatsoever. The numbers are not arrived at scientifically but they aren’t arbitrary either.

The numbers aren’t a reflection of the artistic merit of any of these films, but merely a reflection of my willingness to go to a movie theater and see it. The top four scores will be gathered as a means of reflecting the movies I’m anticipating the most; you may use that as a guide or not.

Each entry is broken down as follows:

NAME OF FILM (Studio) Genre A brief description of the plot. Release plans: Wide = Everywhere, Limited = In selected markets. RATING A brief comment

Keep in mind that release dates are extremely subject to change, even at this late date.

FOUR TO SEE
1. A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD (1.3)
2. BULLET TO THE HEAD (1.6)
3. WARM BODIES (1.7)
 TIE. SNITCH (1.7)

FOUR TO SEEK OUT (FILMS NOT IN WIDE RELEASE)
1. NO (1.0)
2. LORE (1.4)
 TIE. THE SORCRER AND THE WHITE SNAKE (1.4)
4. BLESS ME, ULTIMA (1.6)

RATING SYSTEM: 1) Must-see, 2) Should-see, 3) Perhaps-see, 4) Don’t-see

FEBRUARY 1, 2013

BULLET TO THE HEAD (Warner Brothers) Genre: Action. An assassin and a cop combine forces to take down the killers who murdered their partners. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 1.6 Although Stallone and director Walter Hill would have made a good fit 30 years ago, taking on a graphic novel might be a bit much for them now – but I still want to see it.
DAVID (Reliance) Genre: Drama. Three different men from three different parts of the world in three different years – but all three named David – are about to take steps that will radically change their lives. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 3.1 The trailer doesn’t shed any light on how the three stories are interconnected by anything other than the name.
THE GATEKEEPERS (Sony Classics) Genre: Documentary. The Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service agency, has been at the center of Israeli policy since the Seven Days War; for better or for worse, this film takes an accounting of their actions. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.2 This sounds like a fascinating subject but the trailer makes it look like a bunch of old men talking heads.
GIRLS AGAINST BOYS (Anchor Bay) Genre: Thriller. A pair of girls, sick of being victimized by men, go on a killing spree that begins to expand past their range of tormenters. Release Strategy: Limited RATING: 2.9 Gotta love a distaff revenge flick.
THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT 2: GHOSTS OF GEORGIA (Lionsgate) Genre: Supernatural Horror. A family moves into a remote Georgia home to discover that the ghosts of escaped slaves and angry Rebels are still lurking there. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.9 Looks to be even better than it’s barely related predecessor.
KOCH (Zeitgeist) Genre: Documentary. Former New York City mayor Ed Koch is profiled. Release Strategy: New York City (opening in Los Angeles March 1). RATING: 2.3 Looks like it could be a fairly interesting portrait of a larger-than-life personality.
WARM BODIES (Summit) Genre: Horror Spoof. After the zombie apocalypse decimates the planet, a young woman discovers a young man turned zombie who is starting to feel emotions again – including love for her. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 1.7 A very different kind of zombie movie – looking forward to seeing it.

FEBRUARY 6, 2013

CAESAR MUST DIE (Adopt) Genre: Mockumentary. In a maximum-security Italian prison, a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar has far-reaching consequences. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 2.7 This has kinda been done to death but we’ll see how this one works out.

FEBRUARY 8, 2013

A GLIMPSE INSIDE THE MIND OF CHARLES SWAN III (A24) Genre: Dramedy. After being dumped by his girlfriend suddenly, a successful graphic designer finds his life spinning into chaos. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.5 Despite having the Charlie Sheen factor, this one looks intriguing with Roman Coppola at the helm.
IDENTITY THIEF (Universal) Genre: Comedy. A nebbish travels to Florida to confront the woman who stole his identity and get his life back. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.6 If the only laughs are on the trailer, this could be bad news – or lose your bladder control-funny if not.
LORE (Music Box) Genre: War Thriller. Five children, whose parents were imprisoned at the end of World War II as SS officers, make a perilous journey across a ruined Germany to reach their grandmother in the north. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.4 Looks beautifully filmed and wonderfully tense.
THE PLAYROOM (Freestyle) Genre: Drama. An older sister tries to distract her younger siblings with stories of fantasy while her alcoholic parents party downstairs. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 1.8 Looks really intense; John Hawkes, one of my favorite actors right now, makes it a must-see but I understand newcomer Olivia Harris might be even better here.
PORFIRIO (Magic Lantern) Genre: True Life Drama. A paralyzed man in a diaper plots to highjack a plane to gain revenge over the government – and yes, it’s based on a true story (I couldn’t possibly make that up). Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 2.8 Looks so oddball that it might not resonate…but we’ll have to wait and see.
SIDE EFFECTS (Open Road) Genre: Thriller. A drug prescribed for anxiety has some unexpected side effects, leading to repercussions for both doctor and patient. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 1.9 Director Steven Soderbergh is usually a slam dunk for me.
THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE (Magnet) Genre: Martial Arts. A sorcerer in ancient China tries to prevent a beloved herbalist from losing his soul to an evil white snake disguised as a beautiful woman. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.4 Amazing visuals and Jet Li – what more could anybody ask for?
SPIDERS 3D (Millennium) Genre: Horror. Giant spiders created by pieces of a crashed Soviet space station threaten to overrun New York City. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.9 They don’t make ’em like this anymore – possibly with good reason.
TOP GUN 3D (Paramount) Genre: Action. Maverick takes back to the skies with his wingman Goose, this time in murky 3D Release Strategy: Wide (3D). RATING: 3.9 I’ve already lost that loving feeling for 3D re-releases.

FEBRUARY 13, 2013

A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD (20th Century Fox) Genre: Action. Supercop John McClane teams up with his son to take on a rogue Russian leader bent on world domination.. Release Strategy: Wide (Standard, IMAX). RATING: 1.3 Bruce Willis is getting a bit long in the tooth for these; maybe this will be the passing of the torch.

FEBRUARY 14, 2013

BEAUTIFUL CREATURES (Warner Brothers) Genre: Supernatural Fantasy. A young girl who is about to become a witch of unthinkable power becomes the center of a family feud. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.3 This could either go the Twilight route or become interesting eye candy; I’m sure the studio would like a combination of the two.
ESCAPE FROM PLANET EARTH (Weinstein) Genre: Animated Feature. A heroic astronaut lands on a strange planet, gets captured and must be rescued by his brainier and less brawny brother – three guesses which planet he landed on. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 3.6 The animation looks cheesy and the story ripped off from other mediocre animated features.
MURDER 3 (FIP) Genre: Bollywood. A renowned photographer gets involved with a mysterious woman who may have the answers to the disappearance of his girlfriend. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.7 A Bollywood take on an erotic thriller might actually be better than most of the ones that have come out of the US lately.
SAFE HAVEN (Relativity) Genre: Romance. A woman running from her past finds a small town to hide in and a widower’s arms to hold her but the past has a way of finding you. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 3.1 Nicholas Sparks churns out yet another film to add to his growing list of credits.

FEBRUARY 15, 2013

THE BITTER BUDDHA (Self-Released) Genre: Documentary. Follows Eddie Pepitone, a comic deified by his peers but largely unknown to the general public. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.2 I haven’t seen Eddie Pepitone live but now I want to.
LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE (IFC) Genre: Drama. The story of the relationship between a young woman and an old man in Tokyo. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.5 The trailer is beautifully photographed and sensual.
NO (Sony Classics) Genre: True Life Drama. A referendum on Pinochet’s government in Chile in 1988 is expected to be a whitewash but the advertising exec tasked to spearhead the opposition campaign has other ideas. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.0 Surreal and funny and touching and with an underlying message – can’t wait to see this.
SAVING LINCOLN (Self-Released) Genre: Historical Drama. Lincoln’s bodyguard, famously absent the night of his assassination, is presented here using groundbreaking special effects. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.5 Purports to bring actual Civil War-era photographs to life but looks unconvincing in places; still an intriguing subject nonetheless.
WOULD YOU RATHER? (IFC Midnight) Genre: Thriller. A millionaire throws a dinner party in which desperate guests are forced to play a game of increasingly dangerous and deadly “Would You Rather.”. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.4 Cult favorite Jeffrey Combs is one of the stars so that’s a reason to see it – the trailer is pretty nifty too.

FEBRUARY 22, 2013

11 FLOWERS (First Run) Genre: Drama. During China’s Cultural Revolution, an 11-year-old boy is selected to lead gymnastics for his school, a great honor but he needs a new shirt. This shirt will entwine his fate with that of a fugitive in unexpected ways. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 2.6 The latest from one of China’s most acclaimed young directors.
BLESS ME, ULTIMA (Arenas) Genre: Drama. A young boy in New Mexico during the Second World War comes to terms with his spirituality and Chicano heritage when a curendera (spiritual healer) comes to live with his family. Strategy: Limited. RATING: 1.6 Looks awfully intriguing; based on a controversial novel so that’s always good.
DARK SKIES (Dimension) Genre: Sci-Fi Horror. When a family moves into a new home, they are beset by mysterious forces they can’t understand but they soon realize that they must find a way to protect themselves from. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 2.0 From the producers of the Paranormal Entity series.
INESCAPABLE (IFC) Genre: Thriller. A Syrian expatriate must return home for the first time in 20 years to find his daughter amid the events of the Arab Spring. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 2.1 Looks pretty good with Deep Space Nine’s Alexander Siddig in a long overdue lead role.
RED FLAG (Tribeca) Genre: Romantic Comedy. An independent filmmaker taking his movie on tour enters into a surreal world of sex, fear, drugs and birds. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 3.1 I’ll go with Indie Clichés for $1000 Alex.
RUBBERNECK (Tribeca) Genre: Thriller. A researcher whose tryst with a fellow researcher has developed into an obsession loses it when she develops feelings for another man. Release Strategy: New York City only. RATING: 2.4 Looks genuinely creepy.
SNITCH (Summit) Genre: Thriller. A father makes a deal with the FBI to go undercover in a drug cartel’s organization to save his son from going to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Release Strategy: Wide. RATING: 1.7 Based on a true story and starring The Rock – I’m there.
STAND-OFF (Ketchup Entertainment) Genre: Comedy. To pay off a gambling debt to a mobster, a man robs a fish store he’s unaware belongs to the same mobster; on the run from the cops and the mob, he is cornered in a curio store with a group of oddballs trying to find a way out of this mess. Release Strategy: Limited. RATING: 2.3 A really good cast includes Brendan Fraser and Colm Meaney.

SCHEDULED TO BE REVIEWED HERE AS NEW RELEASES
Bullet to the Head, Warm Bodies, Identity Thief, Side Effects, A Good Day to Die Hard, Safe Haven, Dark Skies, Snitch