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“Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?
Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?
Was it humility, to feel honoured?”–D.H. Lawrence, “Snake”
FEATURING: Maggie Cheung, Joey Wang, Wenzhuo Zhao, Hsing-Kuo Wu
PLOT: After imprisoning the soul of a shapeshifting spider in a bowl, a monk spares the lives of two snakes, one white and one green. The two snakes take human form, seeking to learn the wisdom of our species. White falls in love with a scholar, while Green is more mischievous and seductive; eventually, the monk regrets sparing the pair, and seeks to banish them to their old forms.
- As a director, and perhaps even more importantly as a producer, Tsui Hark is one of the key figures in the Hong Kong New Wave of the 1980s and 1990s.
- Hark wrote the screenplay based on Lilian Lee Pik-Wah’s novel, which was itself based on an ancient Chinese legend. In the original tale the Green Snake is a subordinate character to the White Snake, but in the novel and movie they are of approximately equal importance.
- The same folktale was the basis for The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011) with Jet Li, and the recent Chinese animated hits White Snake (2019) and Green Snake (2021).
INDELIBLE IMAGE: An amazing moment occurs when meditating monk Fa-hai is bedeviled by lustful demons, who appear to him as bald women in skintight cat suits. Shocked when one appears in his lap, he leaps ten feet into the air in front of his giant Buddha statue, then fights the felines off with a flaming sword while they taunt him.
TWO WEIRD THINGS: Monk tempted by pussies; snake joins a Bollywood dance number
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Tsui Hark has style to spare, but spares none of it in this feverish epic filled with Taoist magic and Buddhist mysticism. A spectacle for the ages, Green Snake goes beyond the merely exotic into the realm of the hallucinatory.
UK trailer for Green Snake (1993)
COMMENTS: Green Snake gives you everything you could want in a fantasy epic: unearthly visions, thrilling combat, comic relief, and characters who are archetypal but nuanced. Set in a nonspecific time and region of ancient China, it is a movie of unending spectacle and constantly shifting styles. Sets and costumes are lavish. The snakes fashion an illusory paradise of a homestead complete with a garden with floating lilies. Combatants sail through the air during the combat, both by prodigious leaps and by pure magic. A monk wears a fantastic red cape a football field wide capable of enveloping his enemies. The tableaux are imaginatively surreal. In the first post-credits scene we view a city of men with boils, probosces and snouts chiseling grotesque idols, watched by a calm figure in white (later revealed as the Buddhist monk Fa-hai). Green Snake watches a group of belly dancers at a decadent feast and decides to join in, dropping in nude from the ceiling. Fa-hai’s is tempted by a coven of lascivious feline devils who taunt him with his failure to live up to his ideals (like all enlightening pacifists, he quickly slaughters them with Buddha’s flaming sword of righteousness).
As befits the setting, Hark’s methods are expressionistic rather than realist. Scenes are shot using colored filters: the opening in the depraved city is orangish-red, as is a later sex scene; Fa-hai’s hallucination is in shades of blue. Color schemes are rarely realistic, although sometimes Hark throws in natural lighting just to keep us off guard. The mystical look and feel is created through lighting, costuming, simple practical effects, actors suspended by wires, and frequent use of slow motion and freeze frames. The music is generally fine, although during a couple of love scenes syrupy sweet synth-pop ballads betray the film as being of its era. The imagery is so fantastical that its ambition often outstrips its budget. Some brief CGI is far below contemporary standards, there are moments where the use of a barely mobile snake puppet is obvious, and an imperiled baby looks so much like a prop that you almost believe it’s an intentional choice. But, because of the dreamlike atmosphere Hark creates, what might appear like slip-ups here only add to the surrealistic atmosphere.
Green Snake could almost be a children’s movie, if not for the movie’s intense focus on the erotic. For snakes and monks alike, sex is what human life seems to be all about. Maggie Cheung is at the height of her beauty, which is exploited to its fullest; even when she’s trying to fit into human society, she exudes pheromones from every pore. Joey Wang is no slouch in the glamour department either, spending much of the movie seducing a would-be scholar who’s made uncomfortable by her forwardness. Unaccustomed to rigid spines, the two snakes wiggle lasciviously when they walk, much to the delight of male passersby. There are only very brief flashes of nudity, but a brief glimpse of a prone, nude Cheung, breasts pressed against the floor and head raised to block the view of her buttocks, is enough to fuel a teenage boy’s fantasies for a week. The snakes first appear as a nude woman is giving birth in the forest. We next see them on a roof spying on a pleasure party through a skylight; they seem to be orgasming as they molt into human form in the rain, in a scene intercut with gyrating belly dancers. White and Green bathe together and cuddle in the nude in what to human eyes are startlingly overt lesbian overtures (but is presumably are just normal sisterly affection among snakes). Sex is so central to the story that, in the climax, Green must save the scholar from the awful fate of becoming an abstinent monk, saving him with the power of lust.
One of the most appealing aspects of Green Snake is its moral ambiguity: unlike the simple moralizing found in most fairy tales, the characters here are all complex, sometimes in the right, sometimes in the wrong. When the cat-sex-demons taunt Fa-hai, one of their pearls of wisdom (which he chooses to ignore) is “right and wrong is always unclear.” The monk is clearly the antagonist—our sympathies lie with the snakes—but he is not evil. To the contrary, he is depicted as holy, enlightened, and favored by Buddha, and even the worldly Green is impressed by his ability to manifest a rainbow when he prays. He is, however, the most obviously flawed character; his righteous arrogance, while appropriately aimed at defeating evil and corruption, leads him into error worthy of a Shakespearean tragic hero. But he is also capable of recognizing his own errors and experiencing sincere regret. White fares better on the ethical scale, but we shouldn’t overlook the fact that she uses deceit and illusion to seduce the scholar into her bed. Green is the most interesting and complex character. She lacks the discipline to remain human, constantly reverting to serpentine form. She is mischievous, jeopardizing White’s plans by taking on a half-snake form to chase rats in the rafters. She envies the ease at which White feigns humanity, while at the same time being skeptical of the value of the whole enterprise. Green is morally neutral, espousing the values of a snake rather than a human, and this reptilian perspective gives her an outsider’s authority to criticize humanity and its arrogance.
In the end, White’s yearning to experience human emotion is no nobler than Green’s preference for a simple life eating insects in the forest. Green wants to remain an animal; White wants to become human; Fa-hai wants to transcend humanity. If each could pursue their goal without impinging on the others rights, the world would be at peace. Hong Kong films of the 1990s were made in a climate of anxiety about the impending transfer of the city to the Chinese in 1997, and so the two snakes desire to be left alone by the powers that be carries an inherent political subtext. But that background doesn’t undermine the universality of the ancient story. The tale’s bold operatic qualities remain, though Hark casts Green Snake a plea for tolerance rather than a myth about deceitful demonic forces entrapping mortals. The movie is also a sly critique of Buddhist asceticism. Hark inverts Buddhism’s ladder of enlightenment: Fa-hai’s spiritual discipline is admirable—if he can only contain his moralizing impulses—but mostly in the abstract. White’s choice to settle into normal human domestic respectability is appealing. But it’Green’s unhampered freedom and guileless sensuality transmits an ecstatic sense of joy to the viewer. That’s why Cheung gets top billing, and why her character gets her name in the title.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Polar opposites (human and animal, male and female, repression and abandon) slam together in mythical slapstick freak-outs, endowed by Tsui Hark with florid illusionism (smoke plus wind equals flight, à la Pasolini’s Arabian Nights) and soaring sensation.”–Fernando F. Croce, Cinepassion
IMDB LINK: Green Snake (1993)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Green Snake (1993) – Mubi’s Green Snake page
Green Snake (Film) – TV Tropes’ Green Snake page
PARODY AND NOSTALGIA: CONTEMPORARY RE-WRITING OF MADAME WHITE SNAKE – A Master’s thesis by Vickie Wai Ki Yau describing the evolution of the White Snake legend and ending with a chapter on the movie
Queering Chineseness: The Queer Sphere of Feelings in Farewell My Concubine and Green Snake – Abstract of a scholarly article
HOME VIDEO INFO: Green Snake is a movie that merits restoration and rediscovery by a wider audience. As beautiful as the compositions are, it deserves a crisp presentation rather than the somewhat faded print it now exists in. Despite Hark’s popularity overseas, Green Snake has never found a home with a major distributor. Several DVD releases have appeared throughout the years and gone out of print; one by Tai Seng (buy) seems to be available, but is pricey. Currently, Fandor’s Amazon Channel seems like the only decent choice to watch it, but at the time of this writing, even that option was set to expire in early August 2021. Hopefully someone has picked up the rights to this neglected masterpiece and plans to give it the release it deserves.
(This movie was nominated for review by Morgan, who called it ” a lovely candidate.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)