I recently watched The Legend of the White Snake and it’s one of the best Chinese fantasies I’ve seen so far. At 36 episodes the length is just about right. It’s one fault – and something has to be done about this as it is also a problem in Ice Fantasy and Ashes of Love – is the music. Firstly, the music is good. But there is too little original music – every episode reuses songs and themes. This repetition may force you to take a break and switch to other shows.
Perhaps they don’t account for binge watchers and wrote for weekly viewers. Even so, weekly viewers would get exasperated too. There are many scenes when no music is needed and dialogue is drowned out. Sometimes silence is golden.
With the negatives out of the way, let’s move to the positives.
鞠婧祎 (Jū Jìngyī) delivers a great lead performance. She’s also the vocalist for the opening and ending themes and has an expressive voice. This shouldn’t surprise: she’s also an M-Pop Idol. Her performance as 白素贞(Bái Sùzhēn) is sweet and restrained.
Bai Suzhen is a snake demon (or deity depending on your point of view). Although she has lived a life without care on Mount Emei, she is curious about the mortal realm. Her many years of cultivation on Mount Emei give her the power to assume human form. Unfortunately this human form doesn’t permit exchange of bodily fluids. She is a snake after all. So if she falls in love, she had better fall in love with a man with a low libido.
This duly happens when she meets 许仙 (Xǔ Xiān), a humble physician in Hangzhou. Xu Xian is played with introverted aplomb by 于朦胧 (Yú Ménglóng). The business Xu Xian works for is not doing well – he needs to resort to a little deception to convince the townsfolk to purchase his medicines. But his heart is in the right place.
However he has a female fan, none other than his master’s daughter, Jin Ruyi. She regards Xu Xian as her childhood sweetheart and sees marriage to him as her birthright. As Xu Xian’s feelings for Bai Suzhen grow, so does Jin Ruyi’s desperation. Yu Lang as Jin Ruyi is by turns sweet, scheming and obsessed. To make the viewer hate such a beautiful girl is truly an achievement! Ruyi’s fall from grace and descent into wretchedness is subtle and artfully done.
The Temptation of Master Fahai
The greatest achievement of this show is perhaps the redemption of Master Fahai. The Chinese legend usually portrays Fahai as an inflexible monk, jealous of love and who will stop at nothing to rid the world of demons, even nice demons who pay their taxes.
Pei Zitian is brilliant as Fahai. Is there anything cooler than a monk with a bronze staff that has an orb at the top that starts spinning in the presence of evil? He also carries a mystical alms bowl that when activated by mantras, captures foul spirits.
Early on, there is a truly epic battle against demonic forces that sets the tone for this tale of forbidden love. We see the extent of the Zen master’s powers, and Fahai is feared by both gods and devils. He may be willing to partner with certain demons, or let them off the hook if they promise to be good! But everyone has their own agenda and good is often viewed from the eye of the beholder. I didn’t understand much of what Fahai says because he speaks in parables, but his slow lilting tone is music to the ears.
Fahai’s greatest challenge is a disembodied black aura of pure evil. This mind demon feeds on resentment and tries to get Fahai to do its bidding. Is it a part of Fahai’s inner psyche? This is what the mind demon claims.
Will love conquer hate, can the forces of light contain darkness, can demons and humans have fulfilling relationships and share the housework? What would you do if you found out your girlfriend was a snake? (And not just a small snake – a pretty big and poisonous one.)
I was lucky to visit Hangzhou last year, ascend the beautiful Leifeng Pagoda and visit West Lake. Seeing the sites you have visited in a TV show reinforces their magic. Of course, the West Lake of today doesn’t quite resemble the peaceful scenic beauty portrayed in Legend. But it is still a beautiful area in a lovely city.
The Legend of the White Snake is a fresh and vibrant adaption of the old legend. It expanded my knowledge of Chinese myth and the Mandarin level is quite accessible for intermediate learners. An honourable mention must also go to 肖燕 (Xiào Yàn) as cheeky green snake Xiao Qing. As of writing Xiao is only 22 years old. If China keeps producing acting talent like this we can look forward to more great fantasy TV.
8/10. Classy performances all round, darkness and sweetness combine to produce a fulfilling retake on the old legend. Madam White Snake, take a snakey bow.
Potentially useful vocabulary
妖气: yāoqì – sinister appearance, evil aura
魔鬼: móguǐ – devil, demon
白蛇: báishé – white snake
青梅竹马: qīngméizhúmǎ – lit. green plum bamboo horse; childhood sweetheart