Let’s talk about the end before the beginning. Please stay until the very end–through the credits of “White Snake” (白蛇). The film is a prequel to an old folktale which began as a parable of good versus bad, but through the years has been translated into a romantic adventure, filled with demons, dare-doing, demons, shape-shifters and wuxia.
In this version of the legend of the White Snake, China’s emperor wants eternal life. To this end, the general demands that people bring him snakes to extract their power.
In this world demon snakes who can transform into people exist. Two such Demonds, White Snake or Bai Suzhen (白素貞)and Green Snake or Xiaoqing (小青) are sisters with White Snake the elder. In the English translation, Bai Suzhen becomes Xiao Bai and translated into English as Blanca and Xiaoqing (literally “Little Green”) becomes Verta (Tang Xiaoxi).
During a battle against the general, Blanca (voiced by Zhe Zhang) acquires a light green precious jade hairpin, but plunges down a waterfall. Found by a snake hunter named Xuan (in many stories known as Xu Xian, 許仙), but here in Chinese is Ah Xuan 阿宣), she is taken to the hut of an elderly woman where she recovers but wakes up with amnesia. Xuan (Tianxiang Yang) already knows by the way she is dressed that she is out of his league.
More importantly, Xuan realizes that she has special powers. She rescues Xuan’s dog Dudou (He Zhang) when he falls. She uses a magical umbrella to fly. She also defends them against a snake attack. They both realize the precious jade hairpin has magical powers that neither understand, but Xuan suggests they travel to a workshop for the emperor and ask who made the hair ornament. Before they can return to Xuan’s village, the general’s men have taken over and they must flee.
The general’s henchman, the white-veiled sorcerer Little General (Boheng Zhang) who rides an animal that has an over-sized white cat’s body and tail, but three necks supporting the heads of cranes, takes a half-eaten bun and turns it into a black bat that finds Xuan and embeds itself into him–a magical version of GPS tracking.
The snake that attacked them reports back to the demon snakes. The head snake is a woman who has taught the other demons how to share in the power and when the other demons believe Blanca has betrayed them, Verta asks to be cursed with the Scorching Death Scale. Verta has three days to find Blanca and the hairpin.
On their journey to the workshop of the delightfully sinister and literally two-faced Foxy Boss (Xiaopu Zheng) in Yongzhou, on a whim Blanca gives Dudou a human voice and when they are attacked, turns into a white snake.
During their trip, Xuan tries to comfort her about her lost memories because some things are better forgotten. Still, Xuan tells her, “Seasons pass in the blink of an eye. Life is short and sorrows long, so better to have a few happy memories.”
The Foxy Boss is intrigued by the teaming of Blanca and Xuan and smells the demon in him. She teases, but doesn’t tell all. After they leave the weird fanzine house of temptation, they run into Verta. Blanca partially remembers who she is and that humans strive to kill the demons. Although Blanca saves Xuan from Verta’s wrath and they escape for a time together for a romantic interlude, ultimately Blanca decides to leave Xuan because their peoples are at war.
Xuan decides to trade away his soul to the Dark Forces in order to become a demon, but the Foxy Boss with her opium pipe drives a hard bargain. Xuan becomes the least powerful demon, with his loss of humanity shown by his gaining a tail (from Dudou) and Dudou left with not even a stub to wag.
All this is heading toward a battle between the Snake Master, Blanca, Verta and Xuan on one side and the General and the Little General on the other with the villagers as collateral damage. Sacrifices will have to be made and deals driven with Blanca and Xuan parted to drive the narrative into forward. What is a love story without a few obstacles?
“White Snake” won the Jury Award for Best Animated Feature at the Beijing Student Film Festival. That should tell you something about the talents behind the movie: directors Amp Wong and Zhao Ji and writer Damao. The film comes to a soft conclusion, but the scene after the credits end, suggests things to come. I’m not totally clear on the difference between one’s soul and one’s vital essence, but that might prove to be a key distinction.
In Mandarin Chinese with English subtitles. Screens Sunday (20 October 2019) 7:30 p.m. as part of the Film Is Animation Film festival and released in select theaters on Nov. 29, 2019.