Green Snake (1993) is a wonderful example of the spaces opened up by the Hong Kong New Wave (1979-1984), but chances are you’ve never seen it on any lists. In 1993, it came during the post-wave period, where interest in Hong Kong films was at a low point, and directors like Wong Kar Wai were making fiercely personal, groundbreaking films that drew attention away from older mainstays like Tsui Hark. One of the last films Hark released before moving to America to make a couple terrible action movies with Jean Claude Van Damme and fade into obscurity, Green Snake is also a fantasy film based on a traditional Chinese folk tale, a genre which wasn’t exactly what audiences were looking for at the time.
I ran across Green Snake on a binge of Wuxia movies (that vein of Chinese and Hong Kong film akin to the samurai/yakuza flicks of Japan), and, after watching a number of fairly average sword fighting movies, the opening sequence of Green Snake came as a revelation. I wasn’t expecting a movie so drenched in color, so full of hallucinatory images and erotic beauty, that could also manage, using a cast of magical monks, snake sisters, and spider demons, to hit on surprisingly deep moral topics. It’s a complex film, and has buried in it some of the political tensions alive in those years before Hong Kong would return to mainland Chinese control.
The plot follows two sisters (Green and White), snake spirits, who have taken on human form to experience human emotions like love and sadness, as they become involved with a wide-eyed young scholar named Hsui Xien. Obviously, the fact that they are enormous snake spirits masquerading as beautiful young women provides the two with plenty of problems, and we’re soon introduced to Monk Fahai, who is torn by his duty to banish the sisters to the spirit realm, his realization that they are doing good in the world, and his sexual attraction to Green, which he is in denial about. To make matters worse, there’s also a blind and corrupt religious leader who sees the opportunity to off a couple snake sisters as a means to solidifying his power and riches (ahem, China).
Wading through the musings about love, good and evil, Buddhism, Taoism, and the like, may seem difficult at times, though if you do, you will be rewarded with a more educated take on the film and its place in Hong Kong’s history. However, what really shines here is the mise en scene. Yes, the special effects are dated, but they’re wonderfully executed. The amount of time put into pulling off nearly every frame of the film is mind blowing, with string work, sets, props, make up, and costumes coming together for some absolutely unforgettable images. The film is full of smoke, billowing silk, rich colors, and flashing lights. Also, there’s the fact that the hyper-sexualized snake sisters are pretty damn hot (so hot that it’s difficult to find stills from the film showing anything else).
Out of all of Tsui Hark’s films, Green Snake is by far the most visually successful and thematically rich, and it’s definitely one to watch, especially if you have enjoyed films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Kung Fu Hustle, Wuxia films which are no doubt indebted to this period in Tsui Hark’s films. There may be very little in the way of actual martial arts on display here, but the surreality of the action sequences and the level of inventiveness in staging and tone are groundbreaking.
Perhaps fortunately (considering the fate of his American films), Tsui Hark is best known today for his new series of Detective Dee films, which are a ton of fun but always feel a little childish to me — admirable genre exercises for kids but not adults. Green Snake is definitely for the latter, a bewildering, sexy, sometimes goofy, yet ulitimately intelligent movie about the folly of not being able to put aside ideological differences to avoid mutual destruction. Just give this film some time to get you in its world, and you’ll definitely enjoy what it has to offer.