One of the best known classical Chinese folktales, Madame White Snake has already inspired a host of cinematic adaptations, most famously Tsui Hark’s Green Snake. CGI animation White Snake (白蛇：缘起, Báishé: Yuánqǐ), co-produced by Warner Bros. in the US and China’s Light Chaser, takes a different tack in imagining a prequel to the original legend that hints at a wider destiny for the eponymous Bai Suzhen and the doctor Xu Xian. Like other similarly themed family films, White Snake is also a surprisingly progressive, if melancholy, love story which insists that love is love and does not, or should not, change if you discover the person that you love is a little different than you first thought – in this case, that she’s giant snake demon in beautiful human form.
A framing sequence opens with Bai Suzhen, here called Xiao Bai / Bianca, lamenting to her friend Xiao Qing / Verta (Tang Xiaoxi) that though she has meditated for 500 years she cannot achieve enlightenment and feels the block is due to a memory that she cannot recall. Xiao Qing then gives her a jade hairpin which casts us back 500 years to the Tang Dynasty and a time of chaos in which an evil general has ordered the mass killing of snakes in order to steal their energy for black magic purposes to improve his relationship with the emperor. The snake demons declare war and Xiao Bai is sent to assassinate the general but is injured before she can complete her mission. Washing up on a nearby shore, she is rescued by a local boy, Xuan (Yang Tianxiang), who happens to be a snake hunter. Having lost all her memories, Xiao Bai thinks she is human and bonds with Xuan as they team up to investigate her past with the hairpin as their first clue.
We are told that the land is in chaos and that the peasantry is cruelly oppressed by onerous loans and unjust treatment at the hands of the feudal lords. The general is forcing them to kill snakes and deliver them to him as a kind of tax incentive while threatening their livelihoods if they fail to comply. Despite participating in snake culls, however, Xuan is a kind and energetic young man who is also the village’s herbalist and dreams of becoming a doctor. Having rescued Xiao Bai, he does his best to help restore her memory and vows to be at her side protecting her no matter what. On figuring out that she is really a snake demon, his devotion doesn’t change and he stays with her all the same even knowing that she will be in danger if anyone else learns of her true identity.
Xuan may insist that your fate’s your fate but you can choose how you live, but he also acknowledges that “life is short and sorrows long”, affirming that it’s better to live in the moment making happy memories for less cheerful times. Then again, as Xiao Bai says, you can’t always do what you want and this is indeed a “heartless world” with rules which must be followed. As in any good fairytale, Xiao Bai and Xuan are divided by being on opposing sides of a supernatural plane with differing conceptions of time and eternity. As his song says, “this floating world is but a dream”, and Xiao Bai’s sojourn among the humans is likely to be a short one. Suspected of treachery, Xiao Bai’s good friend (or perhaps a little more than that) Xiao Qing volunteers to wear the Scale of Death, pledging her own life in place of Xiao Bai’s if she fails to fetch her back within three days only to immediately take against Xuan possibly for reasons unconnected to her distrust of humans who, she has been taught, are universally treacherous and hostile to snakes.
Of course, the original legend and the opening framing sequences are clues that this isn’t going to end happily but then with eternity to play with perhaps nothing is ever really as final as it seems. Beautifully animated with gorgeously rendered backgrounds and a melancholy romantic sensibility, White Snake is a huge step forward for Chinese animation which pays tribute the classic legend while creating a universe all of its own with sequel potential aplenty.
Original trailer (Mandarin with English & Simplified Chinese subtitles)