Green Snake (1993)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2006-02-13
“Green Snake” is a great looking movie, full of screen-filing images that represent good and evil, purity vs. carnality and the spiritual live vs. secularism. There are many references and images that are opaque to the Western observer—at least this Western observer—regarding Buddhism, Taoism and the conflict between them. The coming handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic is unmistakably present—Tsiu Hark may be equating it with the role of religion in traditional Chinese society but I don’t know enough about his attitude toward religion to make that connection. From the evidence of this movie, though, Buddhist monks aren’t on his list of favorite people. A great deal of “Green Snake” could be discussed in psychoanalytic terms but despite the claims of the Freudians, Sigmund’s musings seem to be less universally applicable with each passing year and possibly not at all here.

And of course there is the little matter of Maggie Cheung and Joey Wong acting as sexy and seductive as is possible. When not embracing each other in a more Sapphic than sisterly way they seduce monks and fight blind a blind, sulfur-wielding Taoist priest. Green Snake watches White Snake make love, while White Snake watches Green Snake watching her. Green Snake drops in on a sedate orgy featuring Indian-type dancers and turns the lead dancer from a mildly flirtatious performer to a depraved debauchee with a few turns of her hips and a well placed foot. This is a clinic on how to make an extremely erotic movie with only the suggestion of nudity—but what a suggestive suggestion it is—and very little actual physical contact among the actors. This restraint, combined with a lot of extreme close-ups of Joey Wong and Maggie Cheung, shots in which they convey steamy sensuousness with a lift of an eyebrow, the flick of a tongue or the briefest sidelong glance, make it all the more risque.

We are aware of the nudity of the female stars, but only second hand—we don’t see Maggie or Joey naked but we see an audience within the movie watching them most appreciatively. The actors aren’t naked but the characters are—most alluringly when Green Snake first watches and then joins the dance performance early in the movie. She appears in a cloud of smoke—the typical method of arrival of both the Snake sisters—in the middle of the floor, much to the shock and then delight of both the dancers and the revelers at the head table who are transfixed. Another is when Green Snake spies on White Snake and Hui Sin while they are making love—Green Snake is extremely aroused by what she sees but se don’t see anything below the throat of White Snake. The audience for the film vicariously watches through the watcher’s eyes.

Taken by themselves most of the special effects are terrible—the only effects which are effective as such are the billowing surplice of the monk Faat Hoi. The floods, giant snakes, disappearing houses and sudden storms looked as if they were thrown together quickly and without a lot of planning or expenditure. But they work pretty well, since the effects mainly involve the Snake sisters who we have come to identify with during the movie. White Snake is the more powerful—they have control of the elements—but has worked harder and much longer than Green in order to perfect human form, thoughts and emotions. Green is more flighty, having put in only half of the time White has—500 years opposed to one thousand—and wasn’t paying attention during much of the schooling. Due to her continued snakiness Green does have a most noticeable wiggle to her hips when she walks—noticeable enough so that the crews of small boats fall into the water trying to get a glimpse of her backside as she and her sister walk along the canal.

Green and White are the characters who change so we are invested in them. Hui Sin—the honest man—goes from one extreme to another, in love with White, willing to be seduced by Green, hating both of them then willing to throw away everything in order to be with them. A victim of magic, he goes where the latest spell takes him. The monk Faat Hoi begins as an imperious ass who despises humans—in a very effective scene at the beginning of the movie he is disgusted by the antics of a bunch of horribly deformed men and women—and want to eliminate all non-humans, such as the spider who has trained for 200 years so he can be reincarnated as a human. As soon as he senses that there are snake people in the area they are in trouble. It has been very plausibly suggested that Faat Hoi and the monks at the golden temple represent on one level the narrow-minded, puritanical and self-important ideologs from the PRC. The monks are an extremely unattractive crew with a particularly loathsome supervisor—the drum beater with huge ears and a very shaky hand on the razor. He doesn’t know anything other than what Faat Hoi tells him and is willing to carry out his orders no matter what the consequence. And the consequences are fatal to the entire monastery, since he ignores the fact that the room they are in is falling apart around them until it is much too late. The huge red surplice that Faat Hoi uses in the penultimate scene may not represent the red flag of the PRC but one assumes that Hark chose that particular color—earlier the surplice had been white when used to capture the spider/non-human—for more than one reason.

Faat Hoi is a very easy target, both for the audience and for Green Snake, who bets she can make him forget his vows. As a character Faat Hoi is a stiff-necked brute who we simply don’t like. But as an object upon which to project a male fantasy this character is just about perfect—while Faat Hoi is being seduced from his duties by Green Snake it is possible that the males in the audience might fall into a reverie involving Maggie Cheung (literally) wrapping herself around them. Quite an image and only slightly more powerful than White Snake casting a spell on Hui Sin and dragging him off to bed.

This is the type of movie that I find difficult to rate. Overall it probably deserves no more than a five since Hark manages to make his themes both simplistic and muddled, the ending has a real “what was that all about” feel to it and also makes what should have been a key point (involving childbirth and snakes) a non-sequitur. Some of the images are superb, most of the effects are amateurish and the plot wanders around without ever settling down. But any movie that stars Maggie Cheung and Joey Wong as powerful but misunderstood seductresses deserves at least a seven.
Reviewer Score: 7