Note: I am writing these as a fan of the genre. I am not a movie expert or an expert in asian cinema. These are my own observations based on what I have learned by watching wuxia and kung fu movies, and by reading about them through interviews and books. But my knowledge is quite limited and I am an English speaker. So understand that my commentary comes from this perspective.
Note: This review contains many spoilers.
Green Snake is a 1993 film directed by Tsui Hark and based on a novel by Li Bihua (which is itself based on the legend of Madame White Snake). It stars Maggie Cheung (Green Snake), Vincent Zhao (Fahai), Joey Wong (White Snake) and Wu Xing-Guo (Hsui Xien). This is more of a mythic or legendary film than wuxia, but had enough of an influence on Ogre Gate that I want to review it here.
If you've seen the more recent film with Jet Li, Sorcerer and the White Snake, then you will recognize the main storyline. The original source material, Madame White Snake, has been made into numerous films and television shows (as well as books). While I quite enjoyed the Jet Li version and while I rather liked the 2006 version of the television show, this one, for all its shortcomings (most of which are a product of the time it was made) is my favorite version.
What is interesting about the story and how it's been used is its malleability. The character of Fahai, who is the unrelenting monk trying to stop the two snake demons is depicted quite differently depending on the adaptation. In Hark's film, he is a kind of flawed and hypocritical fanatic who unleashes terrible evil in his efforts to deny his own desires and protect the human realm from demons. In many ways he is the villain, but it is clear that he is redeemable.
The main character of the film, is Green Snake, though her sister, White Snake is prominent as well. In other versions of the story White Snake is usually the focus, but here while we follow her transition to becoming human, it is seen from the point of view of Green Snake, who struggles to understand human emotions like love and pain.
Both of the sisters are Snake Demons trying to become human. White Snake is the senior of the two, and been cultivating the change for over 1,000 years, while Green Snake is younger, less in control of her abilities and emotions, and only been cultivating for 500 years.
|Green Snake threatening a temple monk|
White Snake becomes infatuated with Hsui Xien, a scholar who teaches at a local village. She wants to complete her cultivation by marrying him and having a child and arranges to meet him by offering him a ride on her boat across the lake in the rain. Over the course of their courtship she explains and teaches Green Snake what it is to be human. However she and Hsui Xien are beset by Fahai, who opposes their relationship out of a desire to protect the human realm. Their love is also thwarted by a blind daoist, who wants to steal the combined 1,500 years of power the two snakes have cultivated.
Fahai has several encounters with the snakes over the course of the movie. They recognize his power and attempt to avoid him but Green Snake seems drawn to the monk. His first encounter is in the bamboo forest, before they meet Hsui Xien, as they try to shield a villager who is giving birth from the rain. Recognizing that they are helping her, he turns away and shows them mercy. Here we also see the hypocrisy and lust at work in Fahai as he seems to struggle with the sight of a naked woman giving birth (and in fact soon secludes himself to fend off tempting lust spirits). He encounters them again when they save a village from flooding waters with their magic, and again spares them for their good nature. However he soon sees them as a threat when he realizes that one of them has married Hsui Xien.
|White Snake Calls the Rains|
There is a crucial scene about a third of the way through the movie when Hsui Xien pours Xiong-Huang Wine (which is a problem for snakes) into the river by their house, forcing Green Snake (who is in the river) to take her natural form. The sight of a giant serpent terrifies Hsui Xien so much he collapses and his breathing stops. White Snake says the only way to save him is to obtain a special herb from Kunlun Mountain, but it is protected by a magic crane. The two sisters go together to retrieve the herb. They are chased on their way by Fahai and Green Snake offers to contend with him and the crane so her sister can get save Hsui Xien.
|White Snake and Green Snake|
Green Snake is nearly killed by the crane. When Fahai arrives he almost destroys her himself, but shows mercy when she says they stole the herb to save a life. He then says he'll let her go if she helps him test his inner strength. Green Snake attempts to seduce him while he meditates and she succeeds in provoking his lust, which only angers him (even though he asked for the test himself). Green Snake is outraged because he promised to let her go if she helped him, and in her mind he lost.
The film culminates with Fahai confronting Hsui Xien about the snake demons. He shows him that his house is just an illusion and abducts him, taking the helpless scholar to his temple where he tries to forcefully turn him into a monk. Hsui Xien protests that he doesn't want to be enlightened, that he wants a secular life, but Fahai is determined.
As the battle reaches a climax, White Snake gives birth to a child. This disrupts Fahai's concentration because he now regards her as human but the ceremony continues. White Snake loses control of the waters and they engulf the village. In the temple the monks beat on drums and chant as they work to convert Hsui Xien. In an attempt to block the water floods, Fahai sends them into the temple, flooding its chambers. White Snake dies trying to save her child, handing it to Fahai and asking him to let her sister and husband go. Green Snake rescues Hsui as her sister dies but he has already become a monk and she accuses him of betraying them. When she reaches the surface and sees that her sister has died, she kills Hsui (saying he belongs with her sister).
|Green Snake Testing Fahai's Internal Strength|
Fahai storms down, baby in hand, ready to deliver retribution against Green Snake for taking a life, but she points to all the dead monks, drowned by the water he redirected into the temple and he realizes that he's guilty of killing as well. Green Snake muses that even humans don't know the nature of love or good and says she may return when he has figured it out. Fahai is left to contemplate the destruction as he cradles the child.
|Green Snake Trying to Seduce Fahai|
Green Snake sometimes gets dismissed for its dated special effects and heavy-handedness but I think it is an incredible movie. It captures everything I love about wuxia and martial arts fantasy films, particularly rich use of colors and imagery to pull you into another world. There isn't a whole lot of fighting in Green Snake, and it can be easy to get hung up on the erotic elements. However in this instance the eroticism is necessary for the themes Tsui Hark is trying to explore. While it is clear that Hark had his own agenda and vision when he made it, the great thing about Green Snake is it can be read a number of different ways and I think most people will find something about it that engages them. While it clearly can be read as a political allegory, I think the moral and religious themes are more universal and resonate just as clearly with a global audience.
One thing that is interesting about Green Snake is the prominence of the female characters. While isn't that unusual in Hong Kong action movies (especially wuxia) in this case it feels a little more pronounced than usual. The men are either instruments to carry the women's stories forward (as in the case of Hsui Xien) or they are the opposition (Fahai and the blind Daoist). Hsui Xien is bumbling and ineffective. His wife, White Snake, is by far the stronger of the two. At the end of the film he is the one being kidnapped by Fahai with the two snake demons going to rescue him.
|Despite a few hokey effects, the visuals are stunning|
While there are not many fight or action sequences, there are a few and they are epic. This isn't precision choreography, it is larger than life, effect laden, soaring clashes. It is the kind of martial arts action dripping with magic and unfurling fabrics that canopy the sky and keep tides at bay.
There is also a chase scene through the canals of the village, with the Daoist priest trying to catch Green Snake and failing at every turn.
Tsui Hark is known for his use of special effects and there is plenty of it here. It does suffer from what was possible at the time. There was CG, and this film has some, but it mainly relies on traditional effects. This may be striking for modern views. While the notion of suspending disbelief at a giant rubber snake seems comical now, it wasn't as outrageous at the time and to an extent they did a good job working with what was available. Rubber snakes aside, it shines in other areas. The wirework, the costumes, the editing, the lighting and the overall look is impressive. There are moments where it slips because of reliance on old techniques, but there are truly stunning shots in this movie. One of the more interesting aspects is the simply use of the human body to convey that snake-demon nature of the characters. Maggie Cheung is particularly good here, convincing us with her sway and pacing that her legs are more serpentine than human.
Like The Bride With White Hair, Green Snake is a movie that captures a mood and atmosphere, and so it dips into the surreal at times. It uses that to tackle some interesting ideas and moral themes. The film is morally ambiguous, but it doesn't question the existence of good and evil themselves, but our ability to discern the two clearly.
I recommend it primarily because it is just a good film, but also because it has a lot of gaming potential. Any wuxia campaign or even a bog-standard fantasy campaign could benefit from some of the more fantastical elements here. Magic items and magic powers abound, demons of various kinds proliferate and the whole conflict between the monks and the snakes could work really well in a campaign (as a backstory, backdrop or focus). I think most GMs would be inspired and find a well of ideas in Green Snake.