The Cinematic 'White Snake': A Brief History of the Legendary Chinese Story on Film
The 2019 CG-animed White Snake from Light Chaser Animation and Warner Bros. Animation is a visual feast that represents Chinese animation branching out more into the west. This is remarkable since China, despite its dominance in the movie industry, has struggled with its own homegrown animation market. As Hoai-Tran Bui said in her review, the newest White Snake is a jaw-dropping wuxia-fueled mythical tale borrowing from Studio Ghibli and Disney. For the Western audience, the CGI White Snake may be their most visible introduction to the Chinese tale. It is not a straightforward adaptation as it is mostly a prequel to the legend.
As one of “China’s Four Great Folktales,” the original legend spawned many texts, operas, plays, movies, and TV series. The earliest written record of the folktale was recorded in Feng Menglong’s 1624 Stories to Caution the World. The story concerns a human man, Xuan, falling in love with a woman who turns out to be a shapeshifting demonic white snake. As the original source material’s title suggested, falling for a white snake, an evil temptress, is a cautionary tale against lust, not a love story. “Do not abandon yourselves to lust!” cries the Abbott. The story ends with the monk sealing away the white snake in a pagoda and her human love interest taking up Buddhist monkhood as penance.
But as the folktale evolved over the centuries, it transformed from a cautionary tale into one of star-crossed romance and acceptance. The general story rudiments now go like this: a shapeshifting white snake and human man, Xuan, fall for each other, but a demon-hunting monk meddles in their relationship and gives her wine to expose her true form. But Xuan accepts his love’s demonic heritage, unlike his earliest iteration. And there is a green snake, the white snake’s sidekick, often involved.
In the last few decades, many screen adaptations work with the original’s tale archetypes: the titular white snake, her human love interest, the green snake, and the monk who threatens the central star-crossed love.
Here are the noteworthy film and TV adaptations.
The Legend of the White Serpent (1956)
Directed by Shiro Toyoda, this Japanese take is noteworthy for being the first Toho special effects film in color. Despite the post-WWII tensions between Japan and China, Toho did this tale in collaboration with Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers production in hopes of expanding their box office across Asia.
As in the original tale, the white (Shirley Yamaguchi) and the green snake (Kaoru Yachigusa) unleash a climatic flooding spell at a temple that threatens Xuan’s life (Ryo Ikebe), and it ends up killing the white snake. The green snake, often a loyal confidante and spiritual sister in older tales, ditches the white snake. To lighten things, it ends with Xu Xian entering the heavens to reunite with his love.
Panda and the Magic Serpent (1958)
Have you heard of the 1958 Panda and the Magic Serpent? Probably not. You heard of Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away? More likely.
Because we owe Panda and the Magic Serpent (or Hakujaden) to Studio Ghibli and anime classics and for luring the Studio Ghibli masters like Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata into their animation career in Toei Doga. Like the example above, this Japanese studio adapted a Chinese tale in hopes of appealing to the Chinese market. It proudly holds the title of being the first anime feature film in color.
In this kid-friendly rendition, Xian (Hisaya Morishige) adopts a pet snake, who turns into a beautiful woman (Mariko Miyagi). It tried what the recent 2019 one tried: to match Disney animation, complete with cutesy animal sidekicks—little pandas to be precise. Not surprisingly, there’s a happily ever after.
It is the first anime film to be screened in the USA. The same year the new White Snake was released, a restored version was screened at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
Green Snake (1993)
This over-the-top (that’s saying a lot, considering the others) 1993 movie adapts the book by renowned Hong Kong author Li Pi-Hua. It is framed around the perspective of the green snake (Maggie Cheung), who is both a confidante and a jealous rival of the white snake (Joey Wong).
It has a dark conclusion during the climatic flooding where the white snake gives birth to her human son but she tragically drowns while her child is rescued. The monk (Vincent Zhao) comes to terms with his fallibility and the green snake stabs Xien (Wu Hsing-Kuo) to death, not out of malice, but so he can reunite with his beloved white snake in the afterlife.
Director Tsui Hark littered this plot with political undertones, depicting corrupt religious figures like the monk upholding intolerance and the persecution of othered beings like the two snakes. According to Kung Fu Cinema, the element where demon-to-human-transformation required years of training was unique.
The Sorcerer and the White Snake (2011)
In this 2011 action fantasy film directed by Ching Siu-tung, Jet Li assumes the role of the monk, portrayed as a sympathetic extremist in his quest to exterminate demons. Said villain also seems to receive a lesson in tolerating demons or at least being open to the humanity of demons. Even though it ends sorrowfully for Xuan (Raymond Lam) and both white (Eva Huang) and green snakes (Charlene Choi), the white snake affirms that it is more than enough to experience love, even if separation is imminent.
Legend of the White Snake (TV Series )
Based on the 1992 television series adaptation, this most recent TV series of 36 episodes is an adaptation with deliberate modern sensibilities, starring Ju Jingyi and Yu Menglong as the main pair. Not unlike Jet Li’s take, the monk (Pei Zitian) starts as a conventional man with black-and-white views, but he grows into a more accepting fellow. By the end of the tale, the white snake is exiled to a temple to atone for accidentally drowning people, deprived of the chance to watch her human son grow. But as the years go by, her grown son finds a way to conclude her sentence and she is allowed to emerge from the temple and reunite with her family.
Fun fact: It’s on Netflix now.
Whatever the iteration is, the transcendence of love echoes throughout: We will be together. But if we are parted, we will meet again in another lifetime or in heaven.
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