And now for something completely different.
A loopy Buddhist fable in the shape of a blockbuster action pic, The Sorcerer and the White Snake features several big-name Hong Kong stars battling snakes, demons and one another in ancient China. The movie was a big hit overseas in 2011 and has finally rolled around to home video release in the U.S.
Based on a famous Chinese folk tale, the story concerns Abbot Fahai (Jet Li) — a battle-tested monk who leads his disciples in a perpetual war against the demons of the land. Fahai doesn't kill the demons he defeats. Instead, he traps them in the mystical Lei Feng Pagoda, to reflect upon their sins. The demons are an interesting lot — bat creatures, ice harpies, white foxes and the occasional door mouse.
Meanwhile, a curious snake demon named Susu (the celestially beautiful Eva Huang) assumes human form and rescues a young man from drowning in a mountain lake. The two fall in love and the stage is set for a showdown between the good-hearted demon and the literal-minded demon hunter. Fahai, it seems, does not approve of human/demon mixed marriage.
Sorcerer has some of the most gonzo visual effects you'll see all year, big screen or small. Between the martial arts action and the film's wild assortment of otherworldy beings, you get a real eyeful.
Gonzo does not necessary mean good, however, as evidenced by the second half of Hunter Thompson's career. The film's over-the-top fighting scenes feature the usual impossible swordplay, but also 400-foot snake demons and flying bat warriors that look like cutscenes out of a 2003 PlayStation 2 game.
The cheeseball effects are actually pretty easy to forgive, though, because they're delivered with such glee and grandeur. Director Ching Siu-Tung never met a special effect he didn't like. The most effective visuals in Sorcerer come in the quieter moments — carefully composed shots of underwater choreography, or hundreds of monks meditating under a statue of the Buddha.
Sorcerer is being sold in the West as an action-packed visual spectacular, but I found it was the story elements that made me want to stick around. This is a chance to dig into some of the interesting differences in Eastern mythology and fable. For instance, in one critical scene, Fahai and his monk-warriors face down an army of demons not with sword or staff, but with their honed meditation skills. As the demons attack with illusory feints and seductions, the monks simply turn inward and withdraw their senses. You won't see Aragorn trying this strategy against the Orcs.
The fable's final moments play out in unexpected ways, too. Foes are vanquished, but not in any permanent sense, and there's a feeling that this will all play out again in future incarnations.
The Sorcerer and the White Snake is the kind of film you have to switch gears for. Take the movie's folk tale charm on its own terms and you'll find an exotic adventure with a strange and gentle sense of humor. Then the fox demons attack.
Also New This Week:
The feature documentary Into The Cold details a harrowing two-man expedition to the North Pole to mark the centennial of Robert E. Peary’s 1909 expedition. Explorer, photographer and environmental activist Sebastian Copeland delivers some never-before-seen footage in startling HD, with some on-the-ground observations on global warming. Dispute this, climate change deniers. Interesting stat: About 3,000 people have summited Mt. Everest in the last 100 years. Around 150 have made it to the North Pole on foot.
Bill Murray stars as Franklin D. Roosevelt in the underwhelming Hyde Park on Hudson.
Those pop culture archivists at Shout! Factory have assembled yet another nostalgia pack with Howdy Kids!! A Saturday Afternoon Western Roundup.
Plus: Still more documentary releases with Planet Ocean, Love Free or Die and Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War.