VIFF Review: ‘White Snake’ is an epic, adult, animated adventure

Animation is a medium. It’s a weird thing to have to actually write down but to many when you say you’re about to watch an animated film they make a number of assumptions but they all basically boil down to the thought that animation is a genre with its own tropes and conventions but that’s not really the case, is it? Animation is a medium through which we often tell children’s stories but it’s actually perhaps the most expressive film medium, and perfectly capable of telling adult stories.

This fact is exemplified by White Snake, an animated epic from China which has a soft, whimsical animation style but also a dark, violent, and occasionally erotic story to tell.

Based upon the centuries-old legend of the white snake, one of China’s most influential folk tales, the story concerns a young man and a young woman. The woman is found on a riverbank by the young man clad in white and with no memory of who she is, spends time with the young man and falls in love because of course they do. This is a folk tale.

In fairly standard folk tale fashion it’s discovered that she has magical powers, the townspeople reject her as they believe she is a demon, there’s a quest for answers, a sorcerer bad guy, an angry sister, and lots and lots and lots of monsters.

The story is perhaps a little basic but the details are fascinating. This movie is Chinese through and through and makes no effort to westernize for audiences and there are references to customs and basic everyday knowledge that don’t really exist here in Canada. I don’t have a problem with this I only point it out because it’s a glimpse into the near future as China amasses box office power and we start seeing more Chinese made films.

The one way it perhaps is slightly westernized is that as this story turns out to be a prequel to the original legend it is a bit action-heavy. This isn’t a complaint either though, all of the action is so beautifully rendered it’s a pleasure to just sit back and watch as the giant snakes and crane spirits and army of flying paper men and half-snake warriors fight it out. Did I mention that this film has a lot of monsters? This film has a lot of monsters and most of them are delightfully visually inventive.

One, in particular, a demon weaponsmith who has the face and body of a sultry young woman also has the face of a white fox on the back of her head, which she rotates 180 degrees to switch between them. she’s creepy and upsetting and also quite sexualized in case I didn’t mention that this a film aimed at adults.

If there is anything to complain about it is that sometimes the film doesn’t seem to exactly know what it wants to be. The love story between the two main characters is delicate and adult but there is also a wacky animal sidekick and the tone shifts that happen might give you whiplash. The other issue is the script but only in the way where I think that something has been lost in translation. Translating is an art form, not a science, and there are definite moments where what the characters are saying doesn’t really match up tonally with what is written at the bottom of the screen.

These are minor complaints though. White Snake is a gorgeously animated (seriously, the vistas and backdrops, in particular, are all gorgeous) film with a mature story aimed squarely at adults. That combination doesn’t come around that often so when it does it is definitely worth checking out the result.