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White Snake (2019) [FANTASIA 2019]

For a country with such a rich domestic film industry, Chinese animation has failed to make much of a splash on the international stage. But as investment in the country’s industry both from China itself and from overseas has been on the rise, there are signs that this is about to change.

White Snake is directed by Amp Wong and Zhao Ji and produced by Light Chaser Animation. It was released in China in January 2019 and received its North American premiere at this year’s Fantasia Festival in Montreal. GKIDS Films have acquired the film for release in North America this autumn.

The movie is an adaptation of a traditional Chinese folktale The Legend of The White Snake, which has inspired numerous films, stories and series. The most significant of all is not Chinese at all and was, in fact, the first colour animated feature produced in Japan, the influential 1958 Tale Of The White Serpent.

At its heart, the story is about forbidden love between a mortal man and an immortal woman (a White Snake demon). In this version, we meet Blanca- the white snake- after she has taken on the form of a beautiful human woman. After losing her memory, she is found by kindly snake catcher Xuan and the two fall in love. But with conflict brewing between humankind and the demon world, can their love survive?

On a purely visual level, White Snake is a beautiful work of art. With sumptuous backgrounds, impressive vistas and beautiful character designs, it looks nothing short of gorgeous. In motion, the animation doesn’t quite have the smoothness of most high-end CGI, and there’s a lack of weight to the characters, often giving them a floaty feel. However, it’s unlikely to impede your enjoyment of the film much- especially as a lot of character are able to literally float anyway.

As an adaptation of an ancient legend, the story covers some well-trodden ground. The star-crossed lovers from opposing sides is a story we’ve seen many times before. The strength of the relationship between sisters Blanca and Verta (The Green Snake) feels like it might have been beefed up from the original tale, and it’s hard to imagine the talking dog sidekick was in the classic version. Otherwise though, although I’m not familiar with the original story, it feels like it’s probably quite a faithful retelling- despite the fact that this was apparently conceived as a prequel to the original legend.

The filmmakers’ influences obviously extend from outside the world of animation. From wuxia movies to ancient Chinese artworks,  puppetry and martial arts, this film in many ways like a love letter to both Chinese culture and the country that produced it. If you’re a sucker for all things from the middle kingdom then you’ll be in heaven here.

It’s equally successful at recreating the human world of ancient China as the fantastical demon world, but it’s the latter that really allows the creativity to fly. In one particularly memorable sequence, a visit to a kind of demon shop run by a mischevious fox-demoness is full of surprises.

The film has plenty of moments that would likely scare younger members of the audience. There's also violence, occasional blood and an implied sex scene- nothing enough to make this adult animation, but enough to indicate that this wasn't made as a children's film either.

The central romance is not that well developed and perhaps the least interesting aspect of the film, but as an excuse for a wonderful fantasy, it works well enough. There were moments too where aspects in the dialogue seemed lost in translation, although this is likely to be improved in the eventual dubbed and subtitled versions you'll see on general release.

The film is produced with such flair and confidence, it's hard to believe this is only Light Chaser's second film. White Snake proves without a doubt that Chinese animation is ready to take on the world.



IN A NUTSHELL: Beautifully animated and bewitching, this Chinese Oddysee deserves to travel far.


*screener provided by Fantasia Festival*