The film features several fantasy fight sequences. [Photo: M1905.com]
Having screened out of competition early this month in Venice, action fantasy film The Sorcerer and the White Snake, starring Jet Li and Eva Huang, is showing in cinema nationwide from today.
Directed by Hong Kong's Ching Siu-Tung, the film is adapted from the famous household folk story, previously adapted in the 1990s TV series The Legend of White Snake and Hark Tsui's Green Snake (1993), about a female demon, Bai Suzhen (Eva Huang), who falls in love with a handsome herbalist, Xu Xian (Raymond Lam). Prohibitive sorcerer-monk Fahai considers their love taboo and decides to separate them.
Many have compared the story with the 1990s Disney classic The Little Mermaid, as both feature mythical creatures longing for human love and "normal life."
The original legend mostly focuses on Bai and Xu's doomed romance but the latest version brings Fahai (Jet Li) to the foreground.
"Initially [Ching] told me [the film] was all special effects and I didn't need to do many action scenes. I thought it was a supporting role but as the shooting went on… I became the lead," Li joked at a recent press conference. But although Fahai is, in the original sense at least, a villainous role due to his meddling in the private affairs of two lovers, Li tried to project a more nuance aspect to the role.
"I gave a reasonable performance as Fahai, who is principled. It is like there are two sides: There is nothing wrong with Bai and Xu being in love," said Li, "but there is also nothing wrong with Fahai punishing the demon… if a human falls in love with a dog in the modern world, the police would also try to stop it!"
Li accepted the role as a Buddhist and close friend of both Ching and producer Chui Bo-Chue.
"I couldn't think a better person than Jet Li for the role and he is a guarantor for overseas distributions," said Chui, who formed a friendship while working on Li's early films, including Fong Sai-Yuk (1993) and The Tai-Chi Master.
After acquiring fame in the hit Stephen Chow chop-sockey comedy Kung Fu Hustle (2004), Eva Huang gives a contemporary portrayal in the role of the tortured White Snake demon. Like Li, Huang has tried to move away from the traditional, shy personality of the Snake of the folk tale and taken a slightly bolder, quasi-feminist approach.
After falling for Xu in the modern version, for example, Bai boldly visits his home to introduce herself and seek his love.
Big budget fantasy
According to Chui, the film cost 180 million yuan ($28.1 million) to make, with a further 300 million budgeted for post-production; spectacular special effects sequences include underwater scenes and a climactic kung fu fight between Bai and Fahai set in a temple.
"There were three no-limit rules for the film: firstly, there was no budget for the actors. If the actors are good, no matter how expensive they are, we pay them; secondly, we spent as much as was needed for the special effects, no limits.
"Thirdly, no limits for the marketing cost: as much as is necessary, " boasted the film's producer Yang Zi, CEO of Juli Entertaiment.
"Chinese filmmakers are afraid of the fantasy genre, partly because of its huge cost in post-production," said Ching. "This time, money was ensured. A Chinese folk legend, plus martial arts, plus special effect equals a Chinese fantasy film."
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