Madame White Snake

Reviewed by: Andrew Leung

February 26, 2009

Rating: four-point-five

Genre: Chinese Fantasy/Folklore

2006 Chinese Production

The legend of Madam White Snake is a popular folklore that has been around for many generations. It has been performed in Chinese opera many times and adapted in various movies, novels, children storybooks and TV series. The most popular movie is Tsui Hark’s Green Snake. It is one of the most beautiful and wildest interpretations of the legend. However the classic "definitive" adaptation is the 1993 TV series from Taiwan called “The Legend of White Snake” starring Angie Chiu and Cecilia Tung. This series is regarded by many as one of the greatest fantasy series ever produced. In 2001 the story was once again adapted as a TV series by Singapore and Taiwan starring Fann Wong and Yuyan Zhang. This review will focus on the newest adaptation of this legend called “Madame White Snake” made in 2006 starring Liu Tao (as the title role), Chen Zi Han (as Green Snake) and Pan Yue Ming (as the scholar Xu Xian).

The main character is Madam White Snake, a serpent spirit that has cultivated 1000 years of merit. In Buddhist folklore, there exists the concept of "reincarnation" where humans can be reborn again as humans or as animal spirits. If one leads a good moral life, the chances of being reborn as a human were high. However if one leads an immoral life that person would instead be reborn as an animal spirit. If the humans or animal spirits choose to lead a "spiritual life" they would even have a chance to become an immortal. A divine enlightened immortal is at the highest rank in the universe, even above the rank of humans. Madam White Snake has cultivated for 1000 years hoping to become enlightened. Throughout her existence, she has gained many magical powers and can also take on human form at will. Joining her on her quest for enlightenment is her disciple-sister Green Snake, another serpent spirit that accumulated 500 years of merit. Madam White Snake is a very sophisticated and wise woman with many years of cultivation. Her sister Green Snake is quite the opposite. She is rash and easily ruled by her emotions. Madam White Snake constantly tries to reform her sister and teaches her the moral lessons of life, hoping that she can eventually follow the path of enlightenment herself. During her spiritual journey, Madam White Snake is aided by the Bodhisattva Guan Yin. Bodhisattvas are of the highest rank amongst immortals. They are basically spiritual beings who forgo the final stage of enlightenment (i.e. to fully become a Buddha) in order to help cultivate other beings. Madam White Snake views Guan Yin as a spiritual mentor and guide, often seeking her guidance during times of spiritual crisis.

Despite her advanced spirituality, Madam White Snake eventually succumbs to her emotions and falls in love with a human scholar named Xu Xian. This romance brings up many issues to the forefront. The first issue is spiritual enlightenment versus romantic love. Is it better to lead a spiritual life towards enlightenment or better to live a worldly life filled with love and romance? Which path leads to true happiness? Should she abandon her quest for immortality for the sake of love? The second issue is the social taboo forbidding relationships between humans and animal spirits. Humans are fearful of animal spirits, thinking they are evil demonic spirits. This prejudice against animal spirits would make it impossible for Xu Xian and Madam White Snake to lead a happy and normal married life in society. To make the situation worse, Xu Xian does not even know Madam White Snake is an animal spirit. He thinks she is a beautiful sophisticated lady of human origin. If Xu Xian knew the truth, can his romantic love for her overcome this prejudice? Aside from these huge obstacles, Madam White Snake and crew also face constant challenges from a Buddhist sorcerer monk named Fa Hai. Fa Hai is an extremely powerful Buddhist monk with magical powers that rivals that of Madam White Snake. Like most of the human world, he also thinks that animal spirits are essentially evil and sets out on a personal vendetta to capture these spirits. He is very stubborn and only sees things in black and white. He firmly believes that there is no goodness to be found in lower beings, that all animal spirits are demonic as they are of lower rank than humans. He views Madam White Snake and her romantic relationship with Xu Xian with disdain and prejudice, thinking that it goes against the core principles of Buddhism. Can this Buddhist monk who follows things by the book (without compromise) be right? Are things really black and white without shades of grey?

Liu Tao gives a great performance as Madam White Snake. She captures the wise nature and gentleness of her role with ease. She did an excellent job in all the romantic scenes, portraying the love and sadness of her character very well. She definitely makes the romantic story even more touching with her genuine acting skills. In fact, I thought she carried the romantic scenes all by herself with her strong acting. It really didn’t matter who played Xu Xian for that matter with her great performance. Chen Zi Han did a decent job as Green Snake capturing the mischievous and playful nature of her role. The audience can sense the sisterly bond develop between Green Snake and Madam White Snake as the series progresses. Both of the actresses played off each other very well as the sisterly relationship is one of the most important aspects of the story. I have mixed feelings about Pan Yue Ming’s Xu Xian. I thought he portrayed Xu Xian overly wimpy and weak. In the story Xu Xian is supposed to be weak-willed but I found the character overly annoying in this serial. The one thing that redeems this character is his pure and loyal love for Madam White Snake (right up to the final scene). If it wasn’t for this redeeming factor, I wouldn’t have cared much for Pan Yue Ming’s Xu Xian. Liu Xiao Feng did a great job as Fa Hai. We can really sense the inner struggle of good versus evil in this righteous by-the-books monk. Liu Xiao Feng gave a strong performance capturing this inner turmoil as the character heads into the grey areas of morality.

At 30 episodes, this series has great pacing. It wasn’t overly draggy or rushed and all the scenes felt really natural. Being a male wuxia fan, I honestly thought I would be bored during the romantic scenes of the series. After all it was the fantasy-aspect of the story that drew me in (in a similar way Journey to the West draws me in). But when I watched the actual series, I found myself enjoying all of the scenes. There was no point where I felt that the series was overly draggy in the romantic department. I give full credit to the producers and scriptwriters for making the series fun to watch and with great pacing. The music and soundtrack of the series are also wonderful. They really fit in with the mood of the story further enhancing the mystical atmosphere. I put the music on par with Chinese Paladin which had one of the best soundtracks in a TV serial. As for the visuals, this is one of the smoothest series I’ve ever seen. The visuals and special effects were professionally done making it easier for the audience to be drawn into this deep and complex fantasy world of Madame White Snake. When you watch the first couple of episodes you’ll be amazed at how well they depicted the various spiritual realms. They look really smooth and amazing.

Overall I give it 4.5/5 stars. It's a fantasy series that is both touching and intelligent, satisfying the heart and mind of the viewers. This is a rare combination as most series today are superficial with no heart or substance. So if you want to watch a great romantic storyline mixed with elements of fantasy and folklore, this is the series for you.

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