A young Buddhist monk and a wizened old man are soaring through the forest, running on air as if weightless. The old man’s white hair and robes stream behind him as he amiably tells the young monk he’s been training for over 200 years. The monk, named Fat-hoi, feigns amiability for a moment longer. “What a shame. I’ve only been training for 20 years,” he says, before a switch flips. “I can tell you’re not human at first sight. Show your true form!”
Forcibly revealing the old man to be a spider demon, Fat-hoi sucks him into a bowl-like prison in the palm of his hand. The demon begs for mercy, appealing to the monk’s “kind heart”. He’s been training to reach enlightenment for hundreds of years; he’s almost human now, but if the monk banishes him, he’ll never be able to reincarnate and will be forced to return to evil. “Shut up,” Fat-hoi says, staring down at the spider demon, whose shrunken body is doubled over torturously in his cage. “Evil will always be evil.”
Thirty years ago, Tsui Hark’s Green Snake introduced itself to the world with this always-prescient moral prologue. Laying bare the philosophies of its universe with a few swift narrative strokes, the film tells us that while some beings desire transformation, others have the power to punish and deny it. In Green Snake – and everywhere else, it seems – power is the authority to construct the truth and enforce it on others, with the might of hegemony behind you. Redemption and transformation are impossible for demons, according to the monk: all beings are either born human, or evil. This cannot change. Dreaming of becoming something else can be deadly in a world like this. Many do, regardless.
Based on Lillian Lee’s novel of the same name – itself a retelling of the Chinese folktale ‘Legend of the White Snake’ – Green Snake tells the story of two snake demons who have trained for centuries to take the form of human women. Myths have always been fertile ground for mutually enriching interpretations, yet one particularly irresistible way this story may be read is as a work of trans world creation: one about existing in opposition to fascism’s attempts to control and define the body, exposing the artifice of things deemed divinely ordained, and remoulding the world to affirm life, rather than deny it.
The original Legend of the White Snake centres on the older and more experienced snake sister and her love affair with human scholar Hsui-xian; though intended to be a horror story, centuries of storytelling have burnished their attraction with the lustre of a forbidden romance, not in spite of, but because of, its transgressions against the laws of nature.
Lee’s novel and Hark’s film, however, flip the perspective of the myth to foreground the younger and more insurrectional sister, Green Snake. Though she usually plays a supporting role in the backdrop of White Snake and Hsui-xian’s story, in Green Snake, it is through the titular sister’s eyes that we discover the pleasures, dangers, and ongoing rebellion of bridging the worlds of demons and humans. Played by a lithe and sensual Maggie Cheung – sensual in its basest and most animalistic form, meaning ‘of the senses’ – the chameleonic icon of Hong Kong cinema enthrals with her uncanny, deliberately theatrical performance, one befitting a powerful, centuries-old supernatural being confronted with the task of making herself small enough for the human world.
It is a rather momentous shift to observe this strange world through her eyes. As an outsider, not tethered to a human lover like her sister (Joey Wong is an equally delightful, albeit less impulsive snake demon), her only desire is to understand her place within this reality. The two sisters use their magical powers to summon a house into being, and Hark’s film is wonderfully unfussy about the way this is communicated: a swathe of colour wipes laterally across the screen, painting over a desolate plot of land with beauty. Lotus flowers suddenly bloom, pink and plump, over the glittering waters of an illusory pond. Reality is mere surface, remade with ease. Why must Green Snake limit herself?
Intrigued by the human world’s foreignness yet unimpressed by its rules, Green Snake is eager to seek out what her sister implores her to avoid. Refusing to fall in line, she destabilises the fragile boundaries between human and demon, truth and deceit, good and evil. Wanting to experience love or desire for herself – or perhaps discover the difference between them – she drapes herself around Hsui Xian (Wu Hsing-Kuo) only for her sister to tell her to find another man to quench her amorous curiosities, so long as it’s not the dangerous Fat-hoi. Yet the monk has been harbouring spiritual doubts about his ability to renounce bodily pleasure and asks Green Snake to test his resolve. He loses quickly, but while Green Snake believes she has exposed Fat-hoi’s hypocrisy, the monk doubles down and decides to hunt down the snake sisters, ensnaring countless mortals in his wake. (ACAB means you too, transphobic monk!)
Unlike White Snake, Green Snake never seems fully committed to the idea of becoming human; it feels as though she’s merely testing the waters. Witnessing her sister and Hsui-xian falling in love, the younger snake remains uncertain of what that means. Is love what makes her sister more accomplished at being human, and herself less so? Is love the same as desire, or is it something else? Why do some humans run away from it? And if the world-transforming bond between her and her sister or her sister and Hsui-xian still isn’t enough to prove their humanity and capacity to love, then does Fat-hoi really know any more about what it is to be human than two snake demons?
Green Snake is a wuxia fairytale drenched with dazzling colour – gauzy and sensuous greens, pinks, and blues drape operatically across the screen, romantically embellished with glittering light leaks. The camera is a fantastical creature all of its own, tracing the billowing fabrics of the snake sisters’ robes and the monk’s surplice as they unfurl beyond material limitation, a kind of dream physics somersaulting on screen, responsive and alive. The film’s artificial and heady beauty is a constant estrangement. Even the mismatch of its curiously out-of-sync ADR feels like yet another storytelling device beckoning us to find meaning in the gap between real and not real.
Witnessing all of this, Green Snake herself asks: what would it mean to exist in ambivalence, and not in the violent imposition of incomplete truths? “I come to earth but have been misled by the world,” Green Snake says, jaded and mournful, as the film swells to its calamitous and tragic ending. “You say there’s love in the human world, but what’s love?” She stares down at a river of drowned souls, collateral damage to Fat-hoi’s ideological war. “It’s ridiculous. Even the humans don’t know.”
Only one thing is for sure in the world of snake demons, carceral monks, and lovelorn scholars; in the world of filmmaking; and the world beyond: the surfaces and narratives we weave together to tell our stories are malleable. This can imprison us if we are the monk, caught in a losing battle to extinguish the spirits of those determined to live the life they desire. But it can also free us if we embrace the idea that the world can always be what we make of it.
Green Snake tells us that if one day we figure it out, maybe she’ll make her return. And with that, after centuries of learning to be in this world with us, she vanishes into the water.
Published 6 Nov 2023