May 8, 2019

Bai she: yuan qi / White Snake (Amp Wong & Ji Zhao, 2019)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼(☼) out of 10☼

You know how the story goes - a boy finds an unconscious girl by the waterfall, they fall madly for each other, but it turns out that she is a snake demon with the ability to drain your essence through her ornate jade hairpin. And if you already had your share of romantically intoned wuxia spectacles, you certainly would not have a hard time predicting the outcome of their affair. However, you may find the task of collecting your jaw off the floor slightly challenging.

The debuting directorial duo Amp Wong and Ji Zhao, as well as their equally 'green' screenwriter going under the moniker of Damao play the game of adopting a beloved old legend pretty safely, yet the emotional impact strikes home, the small portions of humor work well and the explored themes (of love, loyalty, prejudices and the importance of small things in this fleeting dream called life) are presented with frankness and great clarity, without being too on the nose. Well, even when they are served on a silver platter, their obviousness is but a minor quibble, considering how deliciously gorgeous the film looks! (Think Final Fantasy by the way of Zhang Yimou's poetic elegance.)

While the characters speak Mandarin and feel alive by virtue of excellent voice talents, the astonishing visuals are versed in various other languages. One can almost hear the exotic words in the whispers of crimson foliage, greenish-blue lakes and steep, craggy hills connected by suspension bridges, and not to mention the foreboding cries of secret underground passages and mystical riddles of a towering pagoda. Just as impressive is the surreal, shapeshifting interior of a weapon workshop owned by a shrewd fox spirit who will have you enchanted with her opium pipe in no time.

But, where this high CGI fantasy shines the brightest is action - adorned with special effects representing ancient magic, the gravity-defying sequences of 'snake fu' fighting will leave you wanting more. In one particular scene, a three-headed crane with a white lion's body is involved in all of its fury, and its rider has some neat tricks up his long sleeves. The grand finale brings a climactic, over-the-top kaiju-styled battle, soul-sucking vortexes and cool 'zhezhi' creatures with claws sharp enough to make deep (paper)cuts in scaled flesh. Both the eye-popping design bursting with colors and textures, and the evocative orchestrations which effortlessly conjure the right mood in every moment are deeply rooted in the tradition of mainland China, but the occidental audience will also find a lot to enjoy here.

In case you're looking for a perfect companion piece to White Snake, you should definitely check out another promising debut - independent cyberpunk adventure Yamasong: March of the Hollows by Sam Koji Hale who seems to be striving for the title of the new generation Jim Henson.

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