Tsui Hark was always a master of shooting films that caught the mainstream audience’s attention, and that is exactly what he did with “Green Snake” a film that combines music, magic, action, but most of all, Maggie Cheung in probably her most sensual part.
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Based on the homonymous novel by Lilian Lee, which is a variation of the Chinese folk tale “Madame White Snake”, the film tells the story of two sisters, both snakes, who decide to take human forms in order to understand human feelings like love. The elder sister, White Snake, who is better trained in magic, marries the scholar Hsui Xien and manages to hide her identity from him. However, Green Snake, unable to hide her identity due to her inferior magic, eventually draws the attention of an overzealous Buddhist monk named Fa Hai, who is determined to banish both snakes from the earth.
From the get go, it becomes obvious that Tsui Hark aims at impression rather than substance. The film is almost immediately filled with action scenes (including much flying), the evident beauty of both Maggie Cheung (Green Snake) and Joey Wong (White Snake) in addition to some scenes that touch the border of being Sapphic, and music, with the scene where the Green Snake seduces an Indian singer during her group’s performance being indicative. In fact, “Green Snake” could also be described as a story of seduction, with this aspect taking a rather large portion of the narrative, as the two snakes mostly succeed in enticing everyone that comes their way.
The aforementioned elements, however, do not mean that the narrative is void of Hark’s characteristic social comments. The fact that the snakes just want to live peacefully but are persecuted by zealots, highlights the fact that society does not tolerate the different and stress that no one is completely bad or good.
Regarding the action aspect, it becomes obvious, once again, that Hark knows how to shoot action scenes, as he presents a number of quite impressive sequences that become even better as the movie progressives. In that fashion, from a few skirmishes that combine martial arts and magic, the film becomes a full-blown destruction movie during the end, filled with explosions and whatnot. This aspect benefits the most by Ah-Chic’s editing, who induces the film with a very fast pace during the action, and a slower one in the non-action ones, with the second allowing the two “snakes” to highlight their beauty. This last aspect owes much to Ko Chiu-lam’s cinematography, who presents the two gorgeous women in a fashion that is titillating but not crude at all. Furthermore, the red hues that dominate a number of scenes work quite well in stressing the atmosphere of mystery that surrounds the narrative. On the other hand, the SFX and the snake costumes look somewhat cheap, and detract much from the impression the action leaves.
Add to all that a bit of humor and the omnipresent illogicality of HK cinema, and you have the backbone of the film.
Maggie Cheung, who had already started taking up more serious roles, gives a performance that highlights not just her beauty, but also her inner struggle regarding her true nature and her actual feelings. Her chemistry with Joey Wong is exceptional, and functions quite well both in the moments where they are friends, and in those that portray them as enemies.
“Green Snake” is not exactly a great film, but is quite entertaining, particularly due to Tsui Hark’s direction and the overall presence of the two protagonists.