Siu-Tung Ching 2011 martial arts fantasy film The Emperor And The White Snake (which has been retitled The Sorcerer And The White Snake for its North American release for whatever reason) begins by introducing us to Bai Suzhen (Eva Huang), a 'white snake demon' who meets a man while travelling atop a mountain. This man is Xu Xian (Raymond Lam), a specialist in the healing properties of herbs, and she is quite obviously intrigued by him. Complicating matters, however, is the presence of the 'green snake demon' Qingqing (Charlene Choi) who attempts to kill Xian. Suzhen saves his life and quickly falls in love with him, at which point she takes on a human form. When she does, they get married, though a Buddhist monk who moonlights as a demon hunter named Fahai (Jet Li) is not particularly impressed with their union. He and his assistant, Neng Ren (Wen Zhang), have worked hard at keeping their land free from demons and now, unbeknownst to her mortal husband, there is one in their midst.
So with that set up, Fahai and Neng Ran have to figure out how to best solve this unusual problem. Bai Suzhen refuses to take her natural form and insists on keeping up the illusion that she is human. Fahai realizes that she and her husband are truly in love, but he cannot let this stop him from his task. When Neng Ren is bitten by a bat and falls in love with Qingqing, things get even more complicated for Fahai.
Inspired by the same folk tale that Tsui Hark drew upon for his 1993 film Green Snake, Ching's modern update of the source material is a very mixed bag indeed, though as unfocused as it can get, at least it's never dull. Visually, the movie is all over the place. The 'real' items in the movie all look great - the costumes are often very ornate and colorful, the cast members all look fantastic and some of the landscapes featured in the movie are truly beautiful. The CGI, on the other hand, is ropey at the best of times and given the sheer abundance of it on display here, well, it hurts the movie. The whole thing winds up looking very artificial, particularly in a few of the fight scenes. Here you've got a top tier martial arts superstar in the form of Jet Li, one of the fastest moving and most talented men in the business... going up against things that do not physically exists. It makes the scenes in which he takes on some of the creatures in the film feel empty and it's tough to get too drawn into the movie when you realize Li's just kind of kicking and punching and spinning around all by his lonesome in front of a green screen. On top of that, the movie also uses a few weird CGI animated talking animal characters here and there that would be more at home in a Disney movie.
As far as the cast go, however, things definitely shape up nicely. Jet Li is in fine form here even if he is battling something that isn't really there. He plays the surly aging monk role well, something he might not have been able to do as effectively in his younger days - this is one of those parts where he's the right age to make it work. There are some unexpected comedic moments in the movie that work better than they probably should have and what the action scenes lack in any sense of realism they do at least partially make up for with creativity and scope. Wen Zhang is also good here, he adds some welcome comic relief to many of the scenes he's cast in. Eva Huang is absolutely gorgeous here and Charlene Choi is as well, they both make for very good casting choices as the two female demons in the movie and both suit their parts rather well. Raymond Lam is a bit of a weak link, he's a bit dull, really, and the more melodramatic aspects of his part of the storyline don't always suit his style so well but he isn't completely terrible here (faint praise). So yeah, when the end credits start to role, this is an entertaining enough movie. Though there's considerable room left for improvement and a few too many subplots that zip all over the place, if you like your martial arts movies loaded with fantasy elements and don't mind healthy doses of romance and melodrama tossed in, you can have fun with this one. It's not a modern classic by any stretch, but it is an enjoyable enough time killer.
The AVC encoded 2.35.1 widescreen 1080p high definition picture on this disc is excellent. Detail is strong, colors are reproduced beautifully. Black levels are nice and deep throughout the presentation. Some of the more questionable use of CGI looks a little off, but that's an issue with the effects themselves and not the transfer which is otherwise rich in both detail and texture. There are no issues at all with dirt, debris or visual detriments of any kind and the disc is well authored, showing no noise reduction or heavy edge enhancement. Outside of some slight shimmer here and there, the movie looks beautiful on Blu-ray.
Mandarin language and English language audio options are provided in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio with removable subtitles available in English, English SDH and Spanish. The lossless Mandarin track here is an impressive one from start to finish that does a remarkable job of putting you right in the middle of the action. The score is spread around perfectly with some nice pans thrown in for dramatic effect while bass response is consistent in its power but never to the point where it buries anything that it shouldn't. It's hard to think of anything negative to say here, this is pretty much a reference quality mix with plenty of rear channel activity noticeable not only during the action scenes but during the more dramatic moments in the movie as well.
Extras are limited to a few quick featurettes starting with Behind The Scenes With Jet Li: Fighting, Stunts And Laughs, which clocks in at just over six minutes in length. This is just a simple collection of behind the scenes footage showing Jet working in front of a green screen, rehearsing some fight choreography and interacting with his fellow cast and crew members. There's no context to any of it. The second featurette is Behind The Scenes: Visual Effects And Production Design at just a few seconds shy of seven minutes. Here we see the crew working on some green screen shots, building sets and miniatures on a massive sound stage and generally just putting everything together. Again, it is presented without any context, it's just a random collection of bits and pieces. The third featurette is Behind The Scenes Of Beauties And The Beasts and at just over five minutes in length it focuses on the stunts performed by the two female leads and on how they were transformed into the demon creatures seen in the movie. Also found here is a three minute promo spot called , which is basically an EPK style advertisement, a trailer for the feature, trailers for a few other Magnolia properties, menus and chapter selection.
The Sorcerer And The White Snake is amusing enough to watch once thanks primarily to some very creative filmmaking and a pretty enjoyable cast. The disjointed narrative and goofy CGI take things down a couple of notches, however, meaning that this probably isn't one you're going to go back to time and time again. Magnolia's Blu-ray does look and sound quite nice and it features a couple of okay extras, but it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to see this more than once. Rent it.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.