Tsui Hark merges the punk outrage of his early films with the lavish, effects-driven wuxia of his later, much more financially successful works in this pointed denunciation of the hypocrisies both sexual and racial of China’s religious traditions, the backward superstitional blindness of Taoism and the calcification of Buddhism into a rules-based organizational structure that has forgotten the most basic rule of all major religions and moral philosophies: “Be excellent to each other.”
Based on an oft-told story of two snakes who over 500+ years master enough kung fu that they’re able to transform into humans, Tsui shifts focus from the usual hero of the story, the White Snake (played by Joey Wang) who falls in love with a hapless but decent young scholar, to her younger sister the Green Snake (Maggie Cheung), who is much more suspicious of the benefits of becoming human in the first place. As the White Snake’s tragic fairy tale plays itself out in self-sacrifice and honor and all those things myths tell us are important, the Green Snake sees only the lies and corruptions of the self-righteous and ultimately decides she’d rather be a snake.
The villain of the film is a super-powerful Buddhist monk who has made it his mission to keep non-humans and humans separate. Whether the non-humans are enlightened or not, whether they are moral or not, makes no difference. His xenophobia is pure. Similarly, his belief system demands that he totally repress any sexual desires he may have. The Green Snake challenges him on this and succeeds in turning him on. Surely any god would understand, seeing as she’s Maggie Cheung, of course. But rather than accept his defeat with humility, he lashes out in anger and refuses to uphold his end of their wager. He then kidnaps the scholar, forcing the young man into what can only be described as a Buddhist re-education camp (shades of the Cultural Revolution here), where he is literally rendered insensate by the mindless chanting of the monks (it’s a kind of spell where, deep in meditation, the monks’ ability to see, hear and speak is removed).
Eventually there is a final battle in which the snakes, in self-protection, unleash a violent flood. The monk lifts the mountain holding his monastery above the waters, destroying the nearby town and killing hundreds of people. Out of a mad desire for doctrinal purity, he tries to rise above the flood of emotion and worldly desire, only to cause mass destruction. I couldn’t help but be reminded of The Missing Picture, Rithy Panh’s documentary about the Khmer Rouge that was one of my favorite films at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival. The Khmer Rouge, like the Cultural Revolution, were human catastrophes on a massive, almost unimaginable scale, driven by the desire for ideological purity above all else. In a hyperkinetic fantasy film driven by Maggie Cheung and Joey Wang playing sexy snake/humans, Tsui presents much the same critique. But he seems to have mellowed a bit from the nihilistic explosiveness of the Hong Kong New Wave from 15 years earlier (best exemplified in his third film, and one of his greatest, Dangerous Encounters – First Kind). Rather than seeing the world as hopelessly corrupted and in need of burning down (the way the monk sees normal humans in the films remarkable opening sequence: ugly, deformed, lower beings), Green Snake offers the possibility that we might someday become decent enough for her to return. All we need to do is learn to prioritize basic human decency over the dictates of the arbitrary rules and regulations of our organizing institutions and ideologies.