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Phantom of Snake

Reviewed by: ewaffle
Date: 03/04/2008

“Phantom of Snake” is a supernatural police thriller with a very straightforward plot, no characters that aren’t part of that plot and a story that is easy to accept with its context. It begins with the unremarkable line "Officer, this has happened several times this week" but what the Hong Kong cops are discussing isn’t just another crime on the blotter but a bloody murder scene. No one is happy with this situation: Officer Wang, whose squad has to solve the crimes; Officer Lin, his superior, who is demanding results and the members of Wang’s team who would rather be drinking than spending the night in an alley with a corpse. There are a couple of subplots—Officer Hung, the only female on the squad, has a crush on her boss but he doesn’t think of her as anything but another cop and Lin’s threat to break up the squad if they don’t come up with some answers soon.

The problem that the squad faces is that there are no clues to begin with and the motivation and methods of the murderer become more difficult to understand the more they investigate. The problem for the audience is that Wang and his men never get particularly important to us so we don’t really care about the problems they face. Things get interesting when the second murder of the movie is discovered, luckily enough just outside the bar where the squad is celebrating the birthday of one of its members. While they are examining the victim a figure looms out of the darkness, introduces himself as a reptile biologist and tells them the cause of death is snakebite. He hands his card to the surprised Wang. When Wang looks up from the card the herpetologist has disappeared.

Not disappeared in a cloud of smoke or into another dimension, though—he has just quietly slipped away. The flashier forms of travel are reserved for the snake sisters, Black Snake and Green Snake, who are able to adopt human form under the right circumstances. The sisters are in Hong Kong in the year millennial year to find Black Snake’s husband. He has not only inhabited the body of a human being but has become one. Since he and Black Snake had been together for 500 years she feels she has a claim on his affections but he had been practicing this whole human thing for 2000 years and wants to be done with his snake life. Green Snake is Black Snake’s sister and is there to help and support her sibling. We know from the Maggie Cheung/Joey Wong film “Green Snake” that 500 years of practice is the bare minimum for an attempt to impersonate a human being and both the snake sisters in this movie suffer from lack of preparation.

It is they, of course, who have been responsible for the rash of murders in the SAR. The sisters are looking for a fossilized snake egg that may represent or actually be the wandering husband. Wong becomes their target when he discovers the egg at the scene of the most recent crime and decides it is evidence. He handles this potential clue by slipping it into his coat pocket, unwittingly setting himself up for a few serpentine visits. The confrontation is also the basis for a very funny deadpan line. He gets into his car after a number of near misses with Green Snake but before he can turn the ignition he glances in the rear view mirror and sees Green Snake staring back at him. He jumps, startled, and she asks "Have you been following me?"

Knowing only two women have been seen in the vicinity of the murders—women who, while extremely attractive are also extremely strange—Wang waits for lab results from the latest victim. The women he suspects only come out at night, dress in garish evening wear complete with feather boas with glitzy makeup and wear ostentatious accessories. They move very slowly using a variation of a runway fashion model’s crossover strut. Black Snake, wearing four inch heels, is particularly good at this.

Having received the report on the last attack Wang follows up with the herpetologist from the crime scene, bringing with him the snake egg fossil that he found there. At first cold to the police requests, he is intrigued by the fossil. The plot thickens a bit when a graduate student from Beijing answers Professor Chen's ad for a lab assistant. Despite her field of study, human psychology, she is familiar with snakes since her family used to keep them. She learned to kill snakes when she was eight years old.

Professor Chen, while passing an art gallery, sees three stones displayed in the window that look exactly like the snake fossil he has gotten from Wang. He goes in to examine them and finds that Green Snake is in charge of the gallery and that she has at least one more of them. Her outrageous (for business in the middle of the day) leather outfit and her general sexy slinkiness seems extremely strange to him—and by now does to the audience also. She invites to talk about the eggs with her sister over dinner at 1:00 PM which Chen really finds a strange time, setting up another excellent line when Green Snake asks him "Why, aren't you free then?” The restaurant is empty other than for Black Snake who pours him a glass of wine—which turns out to be snake wine, which knocks him out.

At this point everything is clear, if strange. We (and Wang) know the identity of the murders. We know that the sisters can take human form only at night and only when the moon is not out. There are some well done and suspenseful sequences toward the end of the movie—the filmmakers were able to turn up the tension because the plot was clean and streamlined. One segment occurs when Officer Hung investigates the building where the snake sisters seem to live. It is completely abandoned and ready for demolition, stripped of its windows and interior walls but with enough shadowy niches to hide the sisters as they stalk Hung. Officer Wang shows up at the right time and they leave none the wiser.

There is a connection between Sue, the lab assistant from the Mainland and Mike, the herpetologist that also involves the sisters—which should be the startling climax of the movie but is sufficiently ambiguous so that the viewer is left wondering just who is who and if one person can be himself and someone else at the same time. While this is not the way to shock the audience it was a terrific (or at least sufficient) reason (or excuse) for a long, sensuous kiss between Cecelia Yip and Penny Lam. They made a very attractive Sapphic couple, even though they really weren’t. Strange but true.

The only real difficulty I had with “Phantom of Snake” was the way the sisters pretended to be human. At times they were sinuous and sexy at others drugged looking and clumsy. The way they moved—literally how they got from one place to another—was a languorous, swaying walk, very sexy but very, very slow. The sisters moved at about half the pace of a George Romero zombie although much more smoothly. This is a problem when a fantasy attribute—the sisters as humans moving like reptiles—is very physical. We relate to it as “real” within the context of the movie and it becomes a distraction.

Cecilia Yip looked more like a person who is actually a snake than did Jade Leung. It may have been a combination of her thinner facial features—lips, eyes—and the way she hit the model strut perfectly. Jade Leung was less snake-like but, not surprising to anyone, sexy as could be.

I was less impressed with the score than just about everyone who has reviewed "Phantom of Snake", both here and on other sites. While effective and unobtrusive it didn't add much to one's enjoyment or understanding of what was happening on the screen. One review likened it to Henryk Gorecki which would be the same as putting Joe Hau Wing-Choi on the same level as Sergei Eisenstein. Much of it was shot at night, both exteriors and interiors, and the result was often murky and indistinct images. The acting by those who were not both human and snakes was no better or worse than one would imagine.

This is an entertaining movie with some goofiness balanced by moments of foreboding and fear.

Reviewer Score: 7

Reviewed by: j.crawford
Date: 12/08/2007
Summary: absolutely Unique.

You won't believe your eyes. When the female leads do their snake-like movements, the effect is hypnotic. Unique in every frame, this is an absolutely marvelous film. That's my review, short and sweet. Ordinary words can't do the film any justice.

Usted no cree lo que ve. Cuando la hembra lleva hacer su serpiente-al igual que los movimientos, el efecto es hipnótico. Único en todos los marcos, se trata de una película absolutamente maravillosa. Esa es mi examen, corto y dulce. Ordinario palabras no pueden hacer justicia toda la película.

Vous n'allez pas en croire vos yeux. Lorsque la femelle conduit à leur mouvement de serpent, l'effet est hypnotique. Unique dans chaque image, c'est un film absolument merveilleux. C'est mon examen, court et doux. Des mots ordinaires ne peuvent pas faire le film toute justice.

Reviewer Score: 10

Reviewed by: ksbutterbox
Date: 04/12/2003
Summary: Very Cool Movie

Read the reviews and see the pics at and

Cecilia Yip is wonderful in this film.
Jade is almost as good. The body language and eye movements by these two
actresses make this low budget minor
masterpiece really work.

Cool music and a nice homage to film noir make this a keeper!

Reviewer Score: 9

Reviewed by: shelly
Date: 12/24/2001

This has to be the most idiosyncratically bizarre Hong Kong movie I've seen in a long time. Essentially an avant-garde virtually plotless tone piece posing as a ghost story, director/writer/designer/producer Hsien Yueh's Phantom of Snake is an extraordinary experiment in genre filmmaking. Watch it to try to figure out what the hell the director is trying to do -- it's something brilliant, maybe, about dream-scapes, snake monsters, the mysterious psychic underpinnings of desire -- or watch for the hard to underestimate pleasure of Cecilia Yip Tung and Jade Leung slithering around Lan Kwai Fong suavely snakelike, feather-boa-bedecked and faces a-glitter. Words just fail to describe the weirdness and oddly compulsive watchability of this freakish masterpiece.

Reviewer Score: 9