Green Snake
Hong Kong 1993
Directed by Tsui Hark.

Green Snake is a retelling of the classic story The Legend of Lady White Snake, albeit from a different point of view, pumped up with lush visuals, special effects, over the top characterizations, beautiful women, and hyperkinetic action. In short, it's your typical Tsui Hark production.

Tsui Hark approaches GREEN SNAKE with his favorite theme -- transgression -- firmly in hand. The theme recurs over and over again in his film, whether it be the gender transgression of Asia the Invincible in the Swordsman films, or sexual transgression of man with spirit in the Chinese Ghost Story films. Here it is White Snake who breaks taboo by changing from demon to human (species transgression?). And, what is more, in Green Snake we sympathize not only with the bold and heroic Lady White, traditional star of the tale, but rather with those around her who struggle to accept her transgressive choice to be human, out of love, and those who reject her choice, out of a sense of duty. They are her lover, Hsui-Xien (Wu Kuo Chiu), her sister, Green Snake (Maggie Cheung), and the do-gooder Buddhist Monk, Fa-Hai (Zhao Wen Zhau). By focusing on these characters, and exploring the ramifications of transgression on others, Tsui Hark, and writer Lillian Lee, broaden the scope of the original tale considerably. It is their struggle to accept, understand, or destroy White's dream that now becomes the emotional center of the film.

First, there is the Buddhist Monk, Fa-Hai. When the movie begins, he is standing amid misshapen, hideous, manlike beasts. They carve devil heads, dance and cavort in sickening contortions. Dwarves play mad discordant tunes on pipes, all of them are shouting, disfigured, twisted. This is humanity. At least, this is what humanity looks like to one damn disturbed monk. Through meditation he leaves the sinful and bleak world of humanity behind, and is thankfully transported to an idyllic grove. But he cannot find peace there, either -- he encounters what at first appears to be an old master monk, but immediately Fa-Hai senses a disruption of the natural order. The old monk is not human, and Fa-Hai and forces him to reveal his true self: a spider. The spider pleads with Fa-Hai to leave him alone -- he has been practicing and medititating for two hundred years to attain his current form. But Fa-Hai would have none of it: Men are men, non-humans are non-humans, and there should be no inbetween. He captures the old spider and imprisons him beneath a pagoda. The old spider's rosary, however, continues to glow -- proof of his high spiritual level. Already the monk's strict sense of order is starting to split at the seams. The trouble is, Fa-Hai is conflicted with his own flaws, especially his lust, which he has difficulty controlling. As a result, he doesn't trust himself to make fine distinctions in judgement. After all, weakness on his part could just mean he is giving in to lust. So as a result he defends order in the strictest sense. His guilt over his lustful feelings, and his over zealous covering of his faults, make him a much more complicated and interesting figure than ever the old myth allowed.

Then, there is the scholar, Hsui-Xien. At first, he is the standard archetype of legend. A good, upright scholar, who spies a beautiful woman, and falls in lust. He stays with White even though his energy and soul is draining away, and if Green Snake followed the standard story, his predicament would be revealed and he would be saved by the Monk. But that's not quite how it works, here. Instead, he figures out that White and her sister Green are less than human. He decides to buy some Realgar wine. But on his way back home to administer the lethal dose, he passes villager after villager who thanks him and his wife for healing them and helping them in their home medical office. Hsui-Xien has a good heart, and finds he cannot do harm to the woman he loves, no matter she is a snake or human. The stress ultimately breaks him, though, and in the end agrees to become a monk, a move which, instead of showing him pure of heart as the original legend does, shows his failure as a man, an abandonment of his principles.

And at last, there is Green. She loves White deeply, and loves to be with her, and to be like her, always. She is the younger sister, always looking up to big sister. Whereas White has perfected walking like a human, Green can barely make two legs that work. She prefers sliding along the floor rather than walking. She has no noble aspirations, no driving will that compells her to try to be human like White does. She's just along for the ride. She is comfortable in her snake skin, and when human, likes nothing better than to rub her body together with White, naked and laughing, as close together as two beings can be without being one and the same. And I have to say, I like nothing better myself. Yes, if Green could have had her way, this could have been the best movie ever made. As it is, there are a few scenes that make it pretty worthwhile anyway.

She sees White trying to be human, so she tries to be human. She sees White in love with a human, so she tries to be in love with a human. Though, White has to explain, please don't pick the same human. For White, being human is about experiencing love. But for Green, being human is about feeling and experiencing pleasure -- the ultimate hedonist. She is playful, lustful. Nothing illustrates more the difference between the two sisters than their first arrival on the earthly plane: White glides over to a group of scholars who are reciting their studies, and listens admiringly, while Green drops down, naked, into a group of Indian dancers, and without inhibition proceeds to dance and rub herself against the other dancers.

Green's lustful nature, and Fa-Hai's lack of control, unravel White's careful plans. Because Green is not serious about becoming human, she has trouble keeping her human shape, and when her snake self is revealed abruptly to the frightened scholar, he promptly dies. White and Green then travel to recover the flower of reincarnation to bring him back to life, while Fa-Hai tries to stop them. Things degenerate quickly from there, as Fa-Hai, at first not harming the snake sisters, discovers the wanton Green and his own inability to control his lust for her, and decides that he was right all along -- order must be maintained, and non-human must stay with non-humans, humans with humans. White achieves her dreams, but at what cost?

Green Snake is an often overlooked movie, dismissed as a minor work of filmmaker Tsui Hark. But fantasy film fans will be well rewarded by Green Snake. The fast-paced story, the complex interplay between the characters, and the love and sorrow at its heart, will keep you rivited to the end, and may even make you come back for a few extra viewings. Recommended.

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on May 09, 2004.



Watched this movie recently, and curious about the story behind White Snake, searched and found your commentary. It added more dimension to the way I understood the way Tsui Hark and Lillian Lee might've wanted to explain the twist of this old Chinese tale.

The film lacks cohesiveness, e.g. the rapid cuts between action and drama, the inconsistent pacing, the confusing special effects, etc., all make the storytelling very muddled, flawed, and dismissive.

However, the costumes, the make-up, the background design really brought life to this romance from the Southern Song period - very exotic, beautiful, and "traditional" - which really helped to craft some interesting ideas about "chinese" spiritual/religious idealism.

Your discussion of transgression touched upon this theme of chinese thought concerning the different spiritual realms making up nature, or the world as people understood it. There's a kind of hierarchy that puts all living things - whether you're a lowly snake or spider aiming for enlightenment, or one of those young scholars feverishly studying to pass government exams and achieve success - in their places, as far as what order and stability superficially means. But within this structure, in the way each spiritual realm aspires toward perfection through their own acts of transgression, some good, some bad, some in between - a kind of personal development through the compilation of experiences that can run long as a human life or upwards to thousands of animal years (in the case of White Snake) there is also that ambiguous definition, very chinese, of what being on the human level of spiritual awareness means. To be a good person, a true human, is more than simply to abide by the rules and laws of the land, the duties of the individual toward society, unquestioningly, as dictated by teachings be they the religious or political texts of the day, because then you function no more like Fa-Hai, the buddhist monk, who, despite the magic acquired through discipline and learning, is still one-dimensional and falls ever short of true enlightenment. White Snake, in her willingness toward personal sacrifice, and her attempts to understand the complexity of emotional attachments, i.e. how to be a good sister to Green, how to be a good wife to Hsui Xin, how to be a good townsperson by healing the old and sick in the tiny town, how to be a good mother by saving her newborn, etc. - becomes a human being by putting substance to form, living truth through her action, and not blind acceptance of form for form. To know how to be human is truly a cause for celebration, it is not as easy a feat as most people would imagine(or at least, those living in Red Dust, believe!)

This chinese perception of humanity and its relationship with the greater world is one I find holding much faith, promise, and good will toward fellow humans. I didn't see the point come across too clearly until reading your perspective. Thanks!

As for Green Snake, that is a whole other discussion...her tale provides another piece to the puzzle.

I agree, this movie is interesting in the way it makes a lot of suggestions, but never explicit statements, a quality I find thoroughly...chinese.

Posted by: Wendy at June 10, 2007 01:42 PM
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