“Your fate may be in stone, but you choose how you live.”
I ended my VIFF 2019 experience by seeing The White Snake at the Playhouse theatre. I wanted to treat myself to something imaginative. It was excellent and breathtaking to watch.
Blanca is a young assassin in white clothes. She is a snake spirit as the ‘White Snake’ and is able to assume human form, but she can’t achieve her goal of immortality. The answer to her goal of immortality lies in a memory of centuries ago, which she cannot recall. Her sister Verta, who is a ‘green snake’ spirit, gives her a magical hairpin that allows her to go back in time to the Tang Dynasty to get her answer.
Back in time, Blanca finds herself waking up in a village. She is surprised to learn she’s in what’s called ‘Snake Catcher Village.’ She comes across a handsome villager names Sean and his dog DuDou. Sean rescued her from a rock by the waterfalls. She falls for Sean, but is unaware that Sean is a snake-hunter. He has been ordered to hunt snakes for the Dark General and the Little General as they believe the snakes hold the key to supreme power.
Soon Sean faces an attack from a snake demon. Blanca stops the demon, only to learn it’s Verta. Sean is surprised and Dudou is convinced she’s a demon. Sean is convinced Blanca is not a demon, despite all he knows about her. Nevertheless Verta reminds Blanca that her true nature will come out when there will be a battle between the snakes and the Dark General’s army. Soon Sean learns who Blanca is as she assumes snake form. Foxy Boss tells Blanca a terrible secret about being a ‘demon:’ gods, people, and even other demons want to kill you.
Will Sean still love Blanca? There will be a battle between the snake catchers and the snake spirits very soon. The Snake General wants Blanca to be extinguished since she wants to defy her snake spirit. Blanca is heartbroken and feels she’s doomed to her demon spirit forever, but Sean sees it in his heart to love Blanca and see her for who she really is. The film ends with a battle in thrilling fashion and in a romantic mood.
This film is a 3D animation big-screen adaptation of the traditional four-chapter Legends Of The White Snake. What I liked best about the film is that the film doesn’t just present a good eye-catching drama, but it also possesses a lot of elements of Chinese culture and Chinese mythology. The imagery of animal spirits within a person is very common in Chinese storytelling and Chinese folklore. I’m not familiar with all of Chinese folklore but I can see a lot of familiar traits of it in the film. Especially the animal spirits that exist in the humans. The film does it in a very entertaining and a very mesmerizing way. The 3D animation doesn’t hurt it at all. In fact it makes it very eye-catching and even brings the audience into the story.
The film appears like a common Chinese fable meant to tell the story of bad and good. However the story is also about rejecting a destiny all for the love of a man. She was a snake spirit; he was a snake hunter. It shows how the heart can win over a person even if they are destined to be something else. The film is mostly a drama and the film succeeds in being a dramatic story. However there are some humorous moments. Most of the humor comes from Dudou, especially after he’s able to speak. It does seem like a must to have some humor in an animated film. Kids will be watching. The film doesn’t seem to get as suggestive as parts of Children Of The Sea does, but there are some suggestive scenes. The story tries more to capture the essence of love between the two. Nevertheless the suggestiveness and the violence in the film leaves me thinking this will get a PG rating.
This is an excellent film done by Light Chaser Animation. Excellent job by directors Amp Wong (credited as Huang Jiakang) and Ji Zhao. Amp has animation credits with doing the Green Lantern series. Zhao has more credits in doing editorial work in film and this is his first direction of animation. Here the directors and the Animation studio deliver a great, colorful eye-catching story that’s a delight to watch and will capture your imagination. The story by first-time scriptwriter DaMao is also excellent. It captures the story and the essence of Chinese mythology well while giving an ideal story for big-screen animation.
The vocal talent is also there. Zhang Zhe did a very good job at making Blanca sound mystical. Yang Tianxuang was also good at making Xu Xuan sound as romantic as he looked. He Zhang was great in adding the humor to the film with DuDou and Zheng Xiaopu was great at bringing out the deviousness of Foxy Boss. The music from Guo Haowei and the songs sung by Sean are also a delight to hear and add to the film’s mystique.
It’s interesting to note that the White Snake cost 80 million Chinese Yuan (roughly $11.4 million US) to make but made 447 million Yuan (about $63.9 million US) in China alone. It will be released in North America starting only with Los Angeles on November 15th and in limited release starting November 29th. English dubs will be in the release as Stephanie Sheh will be the English-language voice for Blanca and Paul Yen will voice Ah Xuan or Sean. Having seen the film in Mandarin with subtitles, I would see the English-language one, but I would try to see which one in more magical. Also those who watch the film when it comes out, I highly recommend you stay to watch the credits. Yes, there is a scene in between the credits featuring Foxy Boss that leaves you convinced there will be a sequel coming out. In fact the Mandarin title of the film means ‘White Snake: The Origin.’
The White Snake is a film with a lot of beauty and intense thrills, but it also has some humor and passion. It succeeds in doing what an animated film should do and make you escape into another world.
And that does it! There wraps up the last of the films I saw at the Vancouver International Film Festival. I will be posting my wrap-up blog very soon.
I accidentally came across To Live To Sing when the virtual reality show I wanted to see was in a venue with a low capacity. I’m glad I saw it.
The film begins with a show of local performers in a Chinese city. The show starts with a modern fan dance by schoolgirls. It’s then followed by the Jinli Sichuan Opera Troupe: a local troupe that performs traditional Chinese opera. Right after the show, the opera troupe goes back to their own end of the city where they put on their own daily show. They perform every day at the same time at the same small theatre and entertain the same local crowd they’ve charmed for years. They rehearse well and they get along mostly fine. They have their own disputes on how to do something artistically, but it doesn’t last long. The Troupe is led by Zhao Li whom oversees everything. Her niece Dan Dan, who was orphaned at a young age and raised by Zhao, is seen by Zhao as the future of the troupe as most are aging.
Things are changing in the area they live. A lot of old homes are being crushed under government orders in order to build new developments. The theatre is under threat. This will not only mean the end of the theatre but the end of the opera troupe too. Zhao is frustrated as her theatre doesn’t attract crowds big enough. The others are worried too, but they try to make plans fearing the worst. Dan Dan however sees this as a breakthrough moment as she always dreamt of being a pop star instead of being confined to an opera troupe where she only gets paid 10%. During the time of frustrations, Zhao notices a dwarf in Chinese opera wear. She tries to spot him out, but he runs away.
Zhao is trying to negotiate with the government about keeping her theatre. However she knows it will be uncertain due to the small crowds that come to her theatre. Zhao is very forbidding of any modernisms that come to the theatre. She is strict on tradition. Then one night when she’s out, she notices the dwarf. She tries to follow him but loses focus of him. She is by a night club and she is drawn to the music. Then the announcer announces a singer for her first performance. It’s Dan Dan, and in a showy dress. Dan Dan notices Zhao in the crowd and can’t sing. The two have a fight outside where Dan Dan walks off furiously. The following day, Zhao confessed to Dan Dan that she always saw her as her daughter. Dan Dan becomes more committed to the troupe.
Zhao has another encounter with the dwarf and the dwarf takes her to a restaurant. There she sees one of the men negotiate a future job deal. Feeling the threat harder, Zhao decides one day to break with tradition and do a show that fuses modern with traditional. The troupe is welcoming of it. They perform the show with the mix of modern and traditional. The crowd loved it, but Zhao notices the spirit of the dwarf as it takes her to a mysterious land of Chinese art and culture.
Despite the audience pleased with the performance, Zhao can’t lose focus as an official from the party will be attending a show to see whether to keep the theatre up or not. They get a chance! However it’s a very slim one as the areas nearby are being crushed. The night before, Zhao has the same fantasy of the dwarf taking her to that land. Then the day of the show. The audience is ready. The players are ready, but the official is not to be seen. There has to be a wait and it’s making the crowd impatient. Then the official finally arrives and they are able to put on their show. Just as the show is happening, Zhao is again taken away to that imaginary place. The show she’s in is a dazzling trip of the imagination, until the character played by Dan Dan is stabbed. It all falls apart.
We then learn that the official decided to have the theatre removed. The troupe is heartbroken, even though some talk about plans of what to do after. The next day where there’s no show, members of the local audience show up and wonder why know show? The film flashes five years later with Zhao and Dan Dan returning to the same spot and what’s become of it. They see the development and the ruins. However Zhao sees the dwarf again. Possibly to send one last message.
The film is a common story about art attempting to stay alive. The film also touches on the subject of gentrification. We see it all around us; old buildings being crushed for new developments with big profits in mind. I see it a lot in Vancouver. Here it shows it happening in the People’s Republic of China. In most countries, they have the freedom where they can come bring this issue up to the government. Not all chances work out successfully, but they’re still given a fair chance. In China, you’re chances are very limited with a chance that’s slim to none. When the government says it will happen, it will happen. Zhao was lucky to have that one chance where she could prove to the government the importance of her opera. It was unsuccessful but she still had it.
The film also showed another aspect or battle. It also showcased the battle between traditional art and the more modern art or entertainment that’s the call of the day. Without a doubt, Zhao is a purist of the traditional Chinese opera and starts off as forbidding to the new ways and the new sounds. We should not be surprised that she would be furious if she saw Dan Dan become a contemporary pop star. Despite her belief in traditionalism, she does convince herself to welcome the modern sounds and even mesh it into the traditional opera. We see that a lot in many countries of mixing traditional or classical with the modern. It’s actually very successful in many countries. It proves to be a success here too. However the film sends a message that even with modernisms, the traditional should not be lost. It should still be admired and celebrated.
One thing the film tried to make clear with the story is of the spirits of art and how it exists inside Zhao. You may notice there are many times a dwarf in opera garb is in Zhao’s vision. The dwarf leads Zhao to many images all telling the story of what will happen. However the dwarf doesn’t always lead Zhao to images of a happy ending. That image where the opera comes alive in Zhao’s dreams but leads to the stabbing of Dan Dan is what would send the message of the bad fate of the opera troupe and its house. However it’s right at the end where when it appears all has been long lost at the end, it’s not. The spirit of art still remains even in the ruins.
This is the first film I’ve seen from Chinese-Canadian writer/director Johnny Ma. Living in Vancouver, he’s able to do Chinese stories that would not be the most welcome in the People’s Republic. His first feature from 2016 Lao Shi was about battling bureaucracy and legal manipulation in China. The film was shown at the Hong Kong film festival but not in Shanghai. This film was shown in both Shanghai and Hong Kong. It doesn’t depict the government that bad here. Instead the focus is on art and its attempt to survive. Johnny does a very good story and is good at sending a message, but it is a bit uneven in its storyline. The film also has a real opera troupe as its cast and they all play fictional versions of themselves. That’s another quality to the film. It does make you wonder how they’re doing in their home country. The actors all did well by being themselves when they had to, performers when they had to, and actors when they had to. Zhao Xiaoli and Gan Guidan stood out the most as the two did show a close chemistry in the film that made the aunt/niece relationship look real.
To Live To Sing is a story of artistic ambitions with a bittersweet ending. However it’s a good and colorful, albeit imperfect, reminder that art will triumph.