The Sorcerer and the White Snake

The official Chinatown in Brisbane is in a suburb adjacent to the city called Fortitude Valley. There you'll find a line of restaurants and supermarkets. But the the unofficial Chinatown, where all the Chinese actually are, is in an out-of-the-way suburb called Sunnybank.

Sunnybank is so Chinese their restaurants display menus without English translations.
I'm even intimidated to buy a cup of coffee there, lest I don't know the proper way to ask for one. Their cinema however, located within the Sunnybank Plaza, owned by the Hoyts franchise, is a unique place whereby alongside exhibition of the regular mainstream selection, they also exhibit the occasional Chinese release that no other cinema could find an audience for. This is where I went to see the latest Jet Li fantasy epic 白蛇傳說之法海 (else known as the sorcerer and the white snake).

My personal impression of this film: it was all a bit silly for my liking. The story, while based in a fantasy make-it-up-as-you-go-along setting drawing from traditional Chinese mythology, at its core had some powerful moments. It contained the four elements of a proper epic: romance, melodrama, magic and mystery. The acting was top-notch, quality performances all around from the leading roles to the minute bit-parts. The special effects? They left much to be desired. But here's the problem: this movie was heavily reliant on the special effects. I didn't see it in 3D like I was supposed to, but I'm sure it wouldn't have helped. Quality melodrama and uncanny valley CGI do not mix well in my stomach, and my regurgitation makes an apt meta-metaphor for this pile of pretty colours passing itself off pitifully as a plausible light-show. But that's just my personal impression.

I wouldn't watch this a second time, I wouldn't buy it on blu-ray, but I don't regret the experience. The most interesting part about seeing this movie was seeing it with a Chinese audience, who were all listening to the words rather than reading the subtitles.

There was a scene of light comic relief, where Jet Li--who plays the head arbiter of a monk temple bent on exercising demons from the human realm--hitches a ride in a boat with his protégé to go take care of some demons or something. The boat is driven by a poor medicine man who aspires to run his own pharmacy, and the conversation about aspiration carries over to the protégé who says he aspires to one day become the head arbiter of his temple. Jet Li gets serious and asks something like "and where does that leave me? You want me dead, is that it?" I was half-way across rolling my eyes when I was caught by surprise from the big laughs coming from the audience behind me. I mean proper laughter. I don't know if there was something lost in translation, or if I'd missed some sort of cultural context, but something about Jet Li was apparently hysterical, and so I de-rolled my eyes back to their starting positions. And this happened a few times.

I get easily annoyed whenever I hear someone say they won't watch a film with subtitles. Their typical excuse is they don't feel they should need to use their head as much in reading and watching at the same time. A flimsy excuse to miss out on 50%+ of the greatest films you'll ever see! But now I have to wonder about subtitles: do they properly capture the essence and context of what the characters are saying? Could all of that even be translated into English? Take the above scene, for example. I know the Chinese are deeply rooted in a sense of hierarchy, that there is always a superior and an inferior. Jet Li's underling aspires to one day reach the top, but Jet Li corners him by taking it as an insult, considered to be the ultimate faux pas, pitting the poor guy in a sticky situation indeed. The best way to subtitle this, I suppose, is to translate what's not being said, like: "You wan't me dead, is that it? [Awkward!]"

Although I found the film wholly unsatisfying, I'm glad I saw it in the end. Seeing a movie is much better when you see it with the audience who it was meant for, and I felt like I was involved in something rare. Like a secret.

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