[HanCinema's Film Review] "Madam White Snake" + Full Movie
By Panos Kotzathanasis | Published on
The original Chinese Legend of the White Snake has been adapted in numerous kinds of formats, from operas to stage plays, to movies and television. At the turn of the decade, Shin Sang-ok decided to try his hand on the original, in a film that is rather different from his previous works, which were mostly focused on realism.
A thousand-year-old white snake has transformed itself into a human named Baek Nang-ja. While taking a ride on the boat with her friend, Cheong-ah, who is also a blue snake that has transformed in a human, they stumble upon a young pharmacist named Heo-seon. The attraction between him and Nang-ja is immediate, and Cheong-ah, who seems to know that the purpose of her friend is to find love, pushes the two to come together as hard as she can. A sudden rain provides an opportunity for Heo-seon to loan his umbrella to them and visit them again to get it back, although upon his visit, the first signals that something is wrong, appear, since no one in the area seems to have heard about the two women before. A bit later, Heo-seon is accused for theft, in a series of unfortunate events that end up with him imprisoned and accusing the two women for framing him.
However, Nang-ja, who is in love with him, eventually finds the young man and explains what happened, turning him around, to the point that after his release, the two agree to marry, despite the protests of his family who ask him to be more cautious. At the same time, Beophaeseonsa (a Zen priest) and Gwaneumbosal (the Buddhist goddess of mercy), find out that Nang-ja has transformed into a human without their permission, and order her to return. In the meantime, a shaman cautions both the authorities and Heo-seon about the true nature of the two women, asking from the young man to use a ritual to check. The endeavor ends up with the two even more in love, but around that time, a local lord, Dae-yoon, who has fallen in love with Nang-ja and wants to have her as his 9th woman, schemes to get Heo-seon out of the way.
Shin Sang-ok, once more fills his narrative with episodes, mostly moving towards the melodrama, with the fate of the two lovers functioning as a true odyssey, considering the number of obstacles they have to face. This approach, however, allows him to make a number of comments, which, in this case, however, seem contradictory. It becomes obvious from the beginning that family, authorities, and religion are there just to provide an obstacle to the true love of the two protagonists. However, considering that the two snakes initially trick Heo-seon and everyone around them, and essentially are quite dangerous, the meaning of the narrative seems to state that, perhaps, the cautiousness the three institutions advise or enforce, are to the benefit of people. As the story progresses, the meaning changes once more, as Dae-yoon is presented as the true monster through his machinations, while the love conquers all finale, once again, makes the authorities the bad guys.
Although in terms of Lim Hee-jae's script, the movie faces a number of issues, Shin's direction is excellent as usual, particularly in the way he builds this atmosphere of tension and mystery, and especially since the viewer is not certain from the beginning if what the two women are accused for, is true or not. Evidently, the episodes are somewhat too many, but the way Shin implements them into the narrative adds much to the entertainment the film offers, particularly through the agony about the fate of the two lovers.
Choi Eun-hee plays another role where she is a victim to men in a male-dominated society, with this time, the concept extending to even female higher authorities, as in the case of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. However, and to my great pleasure, this time, her character also includes a kind of femme fatale element, where she uses her evident beauty to make men do what she wants, an aspect she seems to thrive in, as much as in the fact that her role is a bit more sensual than usual. The way she moves and her facial expressions occasionally make the viewer think that she is actually a snake, in an all around great performance. Kang-Shin Sung-il as Heo-seon is the one who has the role of the victim this time, and in that regard, he is quite convincing as he highlights his naivety in the best way. The next rather memorable part comes from Choi Sam as Dae-yoon, with him portraying a truly despicable villain, in a performance that is characterized by a very fitting theatricality.
Where the movie truly stands out in Shin's oeuvre up to this point, is the use of visual and sound special effects, which, despite the age of the film, work quite well. Particularly the presentation of the plain the Gods live makes a great use of smoke and blurring to give it an otherworldly essence, which is intensified by the echo in the voices of the Gods, which gives them a rather majestic disposition. Lastly, the use of wires also adds a nice touch as Nang-ja is elevated of flying.
"Madam White Snake" is a very entertaining film, that highlights both Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee's diversity and overall abilities in the best way, and a film fans of the supernatural can easily enjoy.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via email@example.com.