If you’re unfamiliar with the “Legend of the White Snake,” it’s an ancient Chinese folktale dating back centuries. Rooted in oral history, the tale has been translated into song, print, television, and film many times over. In it, a human man and a female melusine, or water spirit, fall in love, though they tend to meet sad ends. White Snake, the second feature film from Light Chaser Animation, tackles the tale of star-crossed love in a fantastical adventure for adults, despite possessing all the markings of a family story. Released in partnership with Warner Bros. Pictures, White Snake tells its own version of the beloved story, while incorporating elements previously known. In doing so, first-time directors Amp Wong and Ji Zhao with an adapted script from first-time writer Damao produce a film which feels modern while maintaining the timeless feel of the original tale.
A young woman with no memory (voiced by Zhang Zhe) wakes in the small village of Snake-Catcher confused and disoriented. Upon being offered the opportunity to see where she was found, she joins reluctant snake hunter Xu Xian (voiced by Yang Tianxiang) into the nearby woods. As the two journey together to the spot where he found her, his kindness breaks through her innate hesitancy to trust and the two form quick bond. But like all bonds, theirs is tested as the truth of her origins places the pair on a collision course set in motion by a greedy general (voiced by Zhang Yaohan) and a bitter Master (voiced by Liu Wei).
Opening with beautiful pink petals flowing in a breeze under a moonlit sky as a meditative tune from a zither plays, something basic about the premise is implied: that everything which comes is based in nature. Despite a lack of narrative time spent on it, as the story continues, there’s mention of the imbalance in the world between humanity and the natural elements. This discord only fans the flames of the conflict which the Dark General seeks against Master. It’s a smaller element of the larger tale, but it gets to the heart of White Snake: without balance, there cannot be peace. It’s a lovely notion which is explored through a switch in character focus. Damao’s adaptation introduces Zhe’s Blanca, or Xiao Bai for the non-US audience, who takes the lead over Xuan. As the opening continues, the petals lead to a large blueish-white python slithering toward a grotto. There, a woman in white appears, who, while chanting, is thrust into a void of white, her movements highlighted in black, emblematic of the Chinese style of ink wash painting. Cleverly, this sequence hides elements of the later parts of the film in plain sight. As Blanca mourns to her sister Verta, or Xiao Qing (voiced by Tang Xiaoxi), over her confusion in the vision, the audience is made keenly aware that the tale is Blanca’s and her’s alone. It’s not that Xuan isn’t a significant character in the story, he very much is, it’s just that Damao’s adaptation places the most growth and change upon Blanca. Doing so not only adds more emotional heft as White Snake veers more and more into the mystical elements of the folktale, but also sets the stage for Damao, Amp Wong, and Ji to acknowledge past iterations of the legend within their retelling. To explain in detail might get into spoiler territory, but it’s worth acknowledging that a poignant scene between Blanca and Xuan takes place within a hidden pagoda that’s suspiciously similar to the one the White Lady is chained within in other versions of the story. In White Snake, however, the use of chains on Blanca are metaphorical, which is where the wuxia tale is at its strongest.
The collision of past and present isn’t just present in the character focus, but in the art direction, as well. Light Chaser beautifully combines several art forms seamlessly to craft a seemingly living, breathing piece of art. The humans and humanoids are depicted in a fairly standard 3D animated style, giving them depth and weight. There’s nothing particularly impressive which standards out visually, although the design work for Precious Jade Workshop Foxy Boss (voiced by both Zheng Xiaopu and Zhang Lei) is absolutely fantastic. This character is the most distinct and is executed in perhaps the creepiest, yet delightful fashion, as her head spins around without warning to reveal her second face. Foxy Boss, you see, is the designer and seller of powerful magical artifacts and she possesses information which can greatly help Blanca. Explaining the character further would ruin the fun, but her design enables the film to add a level of menace dressed as something light-hearted. Otherwise, the characters appear beholden to the standard mythical female and human male designs. Where the standouts come are in two aspects: the background and creature design. Anytime a field, town, or standard environment establishing shot is provided, it appears in the gongbi style of Chinese watercolor. This affords the background a shimmery look, while also serving as a lovely nod to classical Chinese storytelling. For the creature design, zhezhi, the art of paper folding, seems to be implemented so that the various snakes and creatures take the form of something more corporeal and texturized. Mixing the three forms of art surprisingly flows, as the visual languages of the desperate art forms envelope White Snake, supporting one another without separating or losing their individual meaning.
To be clear, though animated, White Snake is likely not appropriate for young children. It’s not the suggested nudity, adult themes, or even the dick jokes that concern, but the violence. Amp and Ji don’t turn the camera away when it comes to the fight sequences, resulting in multiple violent deaths occurring on-screen. Each one is not gratuitous or explicit, but is stylistically executed for maximum “wow” for the audience, while also conveying the depth of skill from the perpetrators. Can’t have a proper wuxia tale without fisticuffs, but that doesn’t always translate to age appropriateness. Safe to say that history is nothing to turn away from and the fables within each culture’s past often include aspects which are not appropriate for young audiences, but for young adults and older, White Snake is both a fantastic entry point for those who are less familiar with the original folktale, as well as a lovely reinterpretation for those completely intimate.
In L.A. theaters November 15th, 2019.
Expanding into select theaters beginning November 29th, 2019.
For help finding a screening near you, head to the official White Snake website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.