Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 01, 2019 5:25 pm 
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A big Chinese animation sweetens an ancient legend

White Snake is a new animation that's reportedly been big box office in China. (Wikipedia says it's directed by Huang Jiakang, Zhao Wei, and Da Mao.) This is a kind of "Disneyfied take" (as a Letterboxd contributor puts it) on the traditional folkloric White Snake story that people of Chinese culture know from stories, theater, traditional opera, paintings, and other media. There are of course many different variations of the story, and a Wikipedia article on the legend lists ten film versions, of which this is the latest. There is even a DC Comics version, and a commemorative Swatch watch with green and white snake hands. The full Chinese title, "White Snake: Origin" suggests this is intended as the start of an animation franchise. And why not? It's touching, it's dazzling, and it's fun.

The film tells the love story of White Snake aka Blanca, a pretty girl with big Keane-sentimental girl eyes and demonic powers, and and a cute young man with a stylish top knot bun (think early Takeshi Kaneshiro), Xu Xian (or Xuan, who's a snake catcher. It's the end of the Tang Dynasty, the world is on the verge of chaos, and the national rulers have ordered the snakes to be arrested (eradicated?) in the country. White Snake falls into the water and Xuan rescues her, but she has lost her memory. They go to a big jade repair shop because she has a jade hairpin whose magical functions she wants to understand, and have restored. Xuan is enamored: he doesn't want to care that she's probably a demon. (She definitely is, but she likes him too.) The couple actually kiss and make sweet love, before things go dramatically wrong due to the wars of good and evil forces going on around. They pass through a town where there are a lot of poor, starving people they refer to as "refugees." They meet White Snake's sister Verta (Green Snake). And they have other adventures, where the animators pull out all their tricks, lots of effects too elaborate to mention. The Tao, the I Ching, Kung Fu, Yin and Yang, the Buddha, and other staples of Chinese culture are evoked, at least in the English subtitles.

Another Letterboxd commentator says the characters in this film "often feel very weightless, which lessens the intensity of the action sequences," and that is very true. Everything is softened and sweetened here, and the character literally bounce as if they had no weight, while not having much personal substance either, because everything is a bit sweetened. But that makes it go down easy. Later, during the adventures, things grow much more complicated. There is a vast war of worlds, a clash of powers one can't just call good and evil. But the filmmakers have their audience in mind, and so ultimately this is a sweet love story. The storyline neatly ties together with a kiss, and eternal love-longing.

In order to remain with Blanca, Xuan eventually gets changed into a demon, but only a weak one, in his normal form but with the tail of his dog, Doudo, who has started to talk, much to his chagrin (a funny moment), and is a demon too. Going rather in the opposite direction, Blanca turns into a giant white python, but she eventually fails in all her battles and turns back into Blanca, minus her powers.

A recent Variety article points out there is a "huge potential market" for animation in China, but a lack of good training for its production in the schools and universities. The budget for this film is extremely large for an animation by Chinese standards but also shows how much the country still lags behind Hollywood in this field. The $12 million spent on White Snake is paltry compared with $142 million for Kung Fu Panda 3, $146 million for Zootopia and $152 million for Toy Story 3. (In my view, however, the most original and interesting animations are very often the low budget ones made independently, in some unexpected corner of the world. And for all its gorgeousness, White Snake never strays beyond the mainstream.)

White Snake 白蛇: 緣起 ("White Snake: Origin"), 99 mins., debuted Jan. 2019 in China and premiered June 10, 2019 at Annecy, the main western animation festival venue. English and Mandarin versions have reportedly been released in Canada and the US. Shown in Fantasia Fest in Canada July 2019 and also at the NYAFF, and at the latter it was screened for this review.

Showing at the NYAFF:
NYAFF showtime:
Sunday, July 6
1;30 PM

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