Green Snake is set in a world between myth and reality. Zhao Wen-zhou stars as a young monk who spends his days hunting down demons and spirits who have crossed over from their own realm into the realm of mortals. Some of them come with malicious intent, but many of them seem only to want to run wild and free in the physical world for a brief time. The monk operates under the notion that the two worlds simply cannot cross paths, harmless intentions or not. The opening scene of the monk chasing an old wiseman who is actually a spider demon through a field as they both run through mid-air sets a beautiful but disturbing tone for the film. It’s incredibly lush and over-saturated with dreamlike color. The hallucinatory beauty seems eerie, however, not at all peaceful, sort of like those old fairy tales where things are actually creepy and sinister.
Monk Fahai is also immediately established as a complex character who is unsure of his Buddhist vows. He is determined to fight against the world of demons (keep in mind that in Chinese mythology, a demon is not necessarily an evil being), yet he also seems to find something fascinating about their realm. Likewise, he wrestles with physical temptations from his own world. On a rainy night, he witnesses a peasant woman giving birth to a child in the woods and finds it difficult to avert his eyes from the spectacle. He also notices that the woman is being protected from the rain, and quickly spies to giant snakes in the trees, serving as umbrellas. His initial response is to dispatch them quickly to the nether-realm, but he soon has second thoughts and decides that since they were helping the woman out, he’ll let them slide by this time.
The two snakes are played in human form by the beautiful Joey Wong and Maggie Cheung. They are two sister snake spirits who have decided they prefer the human world to their own, and so are doing their best to maintain human form and pass as mortals. Causing them untold amounts of grief is a blind Taoist ghost hunter and his assistants. Unlike Fahai, the priest has no doubts about his holy crusade to rid the world of demons and spirits. He goes about his quest with an unfaltering, blind conviction. Luckily for the sisters, he’s about as good at his vocation as the Three Stooges were at their jobs as exterminators or movers or guys who carried around those big blocks of ice. He’s a minor annoyance to them, but not a real threat.
Rounding out the bizarre cast of characters is a young scholar named Hsui Xien who would much rather be drinking wine and writing love poetry than learning the ins and outs of Confucian philosophy. He’s the classic “dreamer” character. You admire his idealism, but sometimes you just want him to shut up with his “my heart’s so full of dreams” nonsense. And could someone tell me what is the deal with the head rolling? As the scholars regurgitate the Confucian wisdom, they all roll their heads back and forth. I’ve seen monks and other assorted wisemen doing the same thing in various movies. Now I’m no Confucian gentleman. I’ve always been more along the lines of one of those drunken Taoists who lives in a cave and gets in arguments with the moon. So I guess the rule was you had to loll your head about while reciting your lessons, but you know if I tried that in school the teachers would tell me to quit nodding off, not unlike how they made me quit reading in “the robot voice” when I was in second grade. Seriously though, if someone can tell me exactly why they made scholars roll their heads around like that, I’d appreciate it. I’m not above learning some new bit of history.
On a warm summer night, the two sisters sneak into town. Maggie Cheung breaks hearts by dropping in, nude and covered in rain, on a lavish party being thrown by some vaguely Indian guy. She proceeds to stomp mercilessly on said broken hearts with her suggestive semi-lesbian dance involving one of the female Indian dancers. Joey, in the meantime, slips into the river and catches a glimpse of the young scholar. She’s instantly taken with him. Things get complicated quickly. Although she and Hsui Xien hit it off well, there’s this whole issue of her being a giant snake. Maggie also attracts the attention of Monk Fahai, who is torn between his sworn duty to combat the spirits and send them packing and his feeling that they are benevolent creatures doing far more to help their “fellow” humans than most of the actual humans are doing. Plus, he finds himself seized by a strong attraction to her, which shouldn’t really surprise anyone. Fahai’s confusion mounts as he witnesses people wallowing in filth and greed, far more destructive and nasty than any demon he ever vanquished. You could probably have a pretty good fire and brimstone movie featuring Monk Fahai and Robert Duvall’s character from The Apostle, but you’d have an even better movie it was Monk Fahai and Robert Duvall’s character from Apocalypse Now.
Monk Fahai considers the romance a blasphemy. Humans and spirits should not interact, plain and simple. He vows to put a stop to the relationship. Obviously, he’s focusing his anger on the two lovers in an attempt to compensate for his own feelings of temptation and doubt. It’s no surprise to anyone that the most wild-eyed, fire-and-brimstone preachers are often the ones with the most to hide. Nothing fuels a little righteous indignation quite like wishing you yourself could indulge once in a while. Fahai deals with his own guilt by projecting it on others and attempting to interfere in their lives despite the fact that they have no affect on him at all. Like most religious zealots, his divine call is pretty much what the rest of call “dickishness.” Face it: it’s pretty difficult to get behind a guy who’s goal in life is to rid the world of Joey Wong and Maggie Cheung.
The blind priest, on the other hand, is a different type of corrupt religious leader. To him, battling “sin” is just a way to garner more attention and power for himself. It’s not about righteousness; it’s about career advancement. It’s about the rush he gets by forcing his will onto others. Tsui’s criticism of religion in these two characters is harsh but certainly not without sound foundation. Whether its nature is of a political or religious nature (if indeed there is any difference between the two), intolerance is, well, intolerable. It leads ultimately to destruction, alienation, and disaster. Things get bad when Green (Maggie Cheung) starts getting jealous of her sister’s romance. She was already a bit jealous of the success her sister had in adopting human form. Sou Ching pretty much has it down, while Green still has trouble walking and maintaining her human form. She begins doing little things to sabotage the relationship, culminating in Hsiu Xien discovering Sou Ching is a snake spirit. The shock of the revelation sends him into a coma which only a magic herb can cure. Sou Ching is emotionally destroyed, vowing to do everything she can to shed her spirit self and become a real human. Green, in turn, realizes how her pettiness has potentially destroyed two people, and agrees to seek out the magic herb. Unfortunately for the two sister, Fahai is waiting to trap them and send them back to their own realm.
The whole ordeal is further complicated when the battle between Green and Fahai results in severe flooding. The entire village will be destroyed. Using their combined powers, Green and Monk Fahai could potentially stem the rising tide, but they are too caught up in their own vain battle with one another. By the time they realize the error of their ways, it’s far too late, and their efforts to prevent the flood are a failure. The town has been destroyed. Hundreds have died in the flood waters, among them Hsiu Xien and Sou Ching. The final scene of Fahai and Green finally reaching a state of revelation as the world around them is washed away is powerful in the extreme. It’s like a punch to the gut, and where most film makers would attempt to tie things up with some glimmer of hope, Tsui Hark just leaves it as it is. In a theme similar to Zu, the central characters discover their inability to compromise, work together, and put aside their own petty differences and jealousies has resulted in them losing everything they ever cherished.
Parallels to Hong Kong’s situation going into 1997 are not difficult to make, of course. This movie seems like Tsui Hark attempting to come to terms with his own feelings toward Mainland China. His final resolution is bittersweet, to say the least. China has problems. The blind Taoist priest could easily be seen as the embodiment of China’s history of intolerance and political persecution. If the reasonable people from both sides work together, however, perhaps progress can be made in healing China’s ills. It’s a message of hope, though Tsui’s prognosis for whether or not it will actually happen seems doubtful, at best. He is, after all, a notorious pessimist when it comes to human character.
The acting ain’t bad. Though Zhao tends to overdo stoic a bit, Maggie shines. And while she’s outclassed by her “sister,” Joey Wong manages to hold her own as the coy, innocent Sou Ching. It’s a shame she disappeared from the scene soon after making this movie. Along with her role in Chinese Ghost Story, Joey Wong seems to be unmatched in making people wish they could just meet a nice ghost and settle down in some haunted temple or something.
The most subversive thing Tsui Hark pulls with this film is wrapping such a bitter pill in such a sumptuous package. Although a few of the wildly ambitious effects fall flat, Green Snake is a stylistic triumph. The beauty of every shot, the care that went into making every scene seem like a vibrant technicolor dream, is staggering. Few films are as overwhelmingly gorgeous as Green Snake. On that note, you’d be hard pressed to assemble a cast more entrancing and beautiful than Joey Wong, Zhao Wen-zhou, and Maggie Cheung. There’s something unusual about all three of them. They’re not just physically attractive. Something about each of the actors, even outside their roles here, is engrossing. Constant shots of flowing waters, billowing silks, mists, and swaying blossoms make the film unspeakably exquisite. Likewise, the scenes of magic and sorcery are breath-taking. There are no martial arts, but there’s plenty of flying and summoning of natural elements.
As with most Tsui Hark films, it’s possible to overlook the political and social commentary and simply let the grace and beauty flow over you, but you’d be missing out on what makes this far more than just a lovely little tragic fantasy film. If you go into it wanting tons of action and excitement, you’re going to be disappointed. After providing us with some of the most wildly over-the-top fantasy action films in Zu and Swordsman, Tsui seems to be looking for a middle ground here between his early martial arts fantasy films and his later romantic tragedies like The Lovers. He hits the nail on the head. With the exception of a few weak visual effects, he creates the perfect fairy tale mood: lush, haunting, dreamlike, and ultimately foreboding.
The failure of this film followed by the failure of The Blade was a good part of what lead Tsui Hark to seek success in America. Of course, that didn’t work out either, and it’s only very recently — with the success of Detective Dee — that Hark seems to be clawing his way back into the limelight. Joey Wong went into semi-retirement, shifting her base of operations from Hong Kong to Japan.
Zhao Wen-zhou should have been a huge star, but fantasy/martial arts films went out of style, and he found himself stuck is some astoundingly abysmal action cheapies that have done little to establish him as the future of Hong Kong action cinema, which is the title he seemed perfectly capable of inheriting. Maggie Cheung, of course, went on to become Maggie Cheung, and her journey from wimpy, shrieking girlfriend roles in Jackie Chan films to one of the most internationally respected and well-known Hong Kong actors makes me happy.
Green Snake accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is to pull people into its rapturous beauty then leave them confused and depressed at the tragedy of human stubbornness and greed. As a tragic love story, it operates well. As a indictment of political and religious intolerance and persecution, it works even better. Too bad it wasn’t as successful at the box office as it should have been, but then, no one wants an unhappy ending. Tsui Hark was hoping that an unhappy ending in the film would make a real-life happy ending a little more feasible.
Whether or not that’s the case remains to be seen, but no amount of politics can change the fact that Green Snake is a profoundly affecting, ambitious, heart-breaking story. Even a hardened old curmudgeon like myself has a soft spot for terribly tragic romance, especially if it’s between snake demons and flying monks and lazy scholars. Taken as Hong Kong fantasy spectacle or political allegory, Green Snake is one hell of a film, and it’s the perfect final note for the Hong Kong New Wave to end on. It’s only fitting that the man who started it with Zu would also signal its closing with this film so similar in theme and (lack of) resolution.
Ironic that the entire New Wave cycle would end up so closely reflecting the events in Zu. There was lots of flash, lots of innovation. There was a noise that, for a spell, shook the world and attracted everyone’s attention. But at the end of the day, everything closed on the same note of doubt on which it opened. We were right back where we’d always been. With any luck, the seeds of dissent and dissatisfaction continue to burn in Tsui Hark, and he’ll surprise us yet again.