Issue #213a         HOME          E-mail:        BACK ISSUES                May 24th, 2004

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Green Snake
(1993; Seasonal Film Corporation/Film Workshop)

Cantonese: Ching se
Mandarin: Qing she
English: Green Snake


RATING: 9/10


A classic Chinese folktale about two snake sisters, White (Bok) and Green (Ching), their experiences living alongside humans and White's doomed love affair with a naive scholar, forms the basis for this dazzling period fantasy, one of director Tsui Hark's grandest achievements in the genre to date. The fable is one of the "Four Great Tales of China", so it is fitting that each of "The Three Chinas" has contributed an adaptation. In 1976, Mainland director Sha Dan created a Peking Opera musical version called Duan qiao with Du Jinfang and Shan Timing as the sisters, and Ye Shenglan as the male lead. In 1978, Taiwanese directors Si Ma Ke and Chen Chi-hua produced another Mandarin version, LOVE OF THE WHITE SNAKE (Xin bai she zhuan - "The New White Snake Story"), with Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia as White, Chin Chi-min as Green, and Charlie Chin Hsiang-lin as the object of White's affections. Tsui's HK rendition is set in the Sung Dynasty, and while the recreation of the period seems perfect from the structures to the costumes, his use of color effects throughout (which harken back to the work of the great Italian director Mario Bava) heralds the close proximity of supernatural beings and forces.

Joey Wang (left), Maggie Cheung Joey Wang Maggie Cheung

White (Joey Wang Tsu-hsien) and Green (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk) are able to assume human form after hundreds of years of training. White, the older and more mature of the pair, seeks to experience love and sets her sights on Hsui-xien (TEMPTATION OF A MONK's Wu Hsin-kuo), a timid and repressed scholar. The two sisters hold humans in the highest regard, using their powers to heal the sick and divert raging flood waters, with the tacit approval of the powerful monk Fa-hai (Zhao Wenzhou), who has devoted his life to hunting down and vanquishing demons that roam the Earth in human guise. Green's immaturity and inability to maintain her human body for extended periods pose an increasing threat to both the sisters' safety and White's relationship. When Hsui-xien accidentally sees Green in her true form, he dies of fright, prompting White and Green to steal a precious herb needed to bring him back from the dead. Their actions put them in conflict with Fa-hai, who decides, in lieu of punishment, to have Green try and seduce him as a test of his will power. When he succumbs to human lust, he seeks revenge on the sisters, with his subsequent actions having tragic consequences not only for the snakes, but for the entire countryside.

While GREEN SNAKE shares some plot components with the A CHINESE GHOST STORY series (in particular, a sage and his disciples try to expose the non-humans' masquerade, and a naive scholar as male protagonist), the extensive application of Buddhist ideology makes this seem very fresh and imaginative when compared to the majority of films produced during the period fantasy craze. Sexuality has never played much of a role in Tsui's films, presumably by design but possibly due to the restrictions HK censors place on the Category II rating, being much more tolerant of violence than eroticism. However, sex is right in the forefront here, from White's desire to experience it and Green's jealous yearning to share in anything her sister undergoes, to Fai-hai's desperate efforts to suppress his base human urges. Oddly, despite all of these salacious undercurrents, GREEN SNAKE has occasionally been faulted for being emotionally aloof, though it clearly also displays the same sort of playful romanticism found in Tsui's THE LOVERS, which also deals with forbidden love, and ends on an equally sombre note.

Wu Hsin-kuo (center), Joey Wang Maggie Cheung (left), Zhao Wenzhou Maggie Cheung (center), Joey Wang

Cheung is thoroughly engaging in one of her most playful and provocative characterizations to date and Wang gives an amusingly exaggerated caricature of the traditionally obsequious Chinese wife, precisely the sort of "more human than human" overcompensation you would expect from a creature craving to be human. Zhao (who took over the Wong Fei-hung role from Jet Li in Tsui's ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA series) gives an appropriately severe performance, effectively capturing Fa-hai's rigid adherence to his Buddhist doctrines and also the character's near complete failure to empathize with the creatures he has coldly pledged to destroy. The moral transformation he undergoes at the climax is a nice, contemporary spin on the traditional infallibility of religious characters in this genre. Taiwanese star Wu Hsin-kuo (whose name is presented in the English credits as "Wu Kuo Chiu") is cast against type here and, while competent, never seems to settle comfortably into his part, being better suited to the sort of intense, character-driven roles that originally brought him fame. The score by James Wong Jim and Mark Lui Chung-tak (released on CD but long out-of-print) is a wonderful amalgam of traditional instrumentation, contemporary ambience, and South East Asian influences, and complements both the visuals and the drama in highly satisfying fashion. The film was rushed through post-production in order to make its release date and, as a result, some of the digital and blue screen work is not up to par. However, Tsui's artistry is not significantly compromised, and most of the FX are so ambitious that either a gargantuan budget or top of the line technology would have been required to present them with complete verisimilitude. In spite of this shortcoming, there are moments here (particularly the early sequence where Fa-hai is tempted by his desires, which personify themselves as grotesque, naked humanoids that dance around and taunt him) which rank among the most piquantly visual that Tsui has ever staged.

Zhao Wenzhou and The Magic Crane Joey Wang (left), Maggie Cheung Maggie Cheung


GREEN SNAKE is a very welcome addition to Mei Ah's new line of high definition re-masters and easily the best DVD rendition this title has received to date. The cinematography utilizes a dreamy, soft-focus look that could (and did) look fuzzy on occasion but the anamorphic transfer conveys it without difficulty. The colors and detail levels are very good, and (outside of dirt and wear intrinsic to the optical effects) only an occasional speckle can be seen. Minor smearing can be detected during a few shots featuring rain but the compression is otherwise competently handled and the dual layer disc utilizes a high bit rate throughout.

The original Cantonese and Mandarin mono tracks are offered, along with a re-mix of the former, available in both Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS. Reverb is an occasional problem but the score is nicely enhanced and the wider soundstage gives the film more of the epic sweep it deserves. The music is more prominent on the new track (which may prove a slight distraction to those who have seen older releases of the movie numerous times) and a low hum can be heard during quiet passages. Also, a cue has been extended over a sequence that originally lacked music (1:01:18 - 1:01:44); the 2.0 tracks remain the same, however. A theatrical trailer and Mei Ah's useless Data Bank are the only extras and the English subtitle translation still leaves something to be desired. At least, the subs are now much more legible than their burned-in theatrical counterparts. Minor flaws aside, this is a highly satisfying DVD that fans of the film will definitely want to add to their shelves.

This DVD is available at:

Images in this review courtesy of Mei Ah. To read captions, hover mouse over image.

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Copyright © John Charles 2000 - 2004. All Rights Reserved.

DVD Specifications

  • Hong Kong Release
  • NTSC -- Region 0
  • Mei Ah Entertainment #DVD-646
  • Dolby Digital 5.1 & 2.0, DTS
  • Post-synced Cantonese and Mandarin Language
  • Subtitles (Optional): English, Traditional & Simplified Chinese
  • 7 Chapters
  • 16:9 Enhanced (2.30:1)
  • 99 Minutes

Ratings & Consumer Information

  • Australia: M 15+
  • Hong Kong: II
  • Ontario: AA
  • Quebec: G
  • Singapore: PG (cut)
  • Contains mild violence, brief nudity, and mild sexuality


  • 10 A Masterpiece
  • 9 Excellent
  • 8 Highly Recommended
  • 7 Very Good
  • 6 Recommended
  • 5 Marginal Recommendation
  • 4 Not Recommended
  • 3 Poor
  • 2 Definitely Not Recommended
  • 1 Dreadful