The film is based on a famous Chinese legend, generally known as the "Legend of the White Snake," one that has served as inspiration for hundreds of operas in China, as well as a number of films and TV programs, perhaps most notably Tsui Hark's 1993 "Green Snake," with Maggie Cheung. In this take, White Snake (Eva Huang, of "Kung-Fu Hustle" fame), a 1000-year-old snake demon, falls in love with Xu Xian (Raymond Lam), a young herbalist who aspires to become a doctor, against the warning of her companion Green Snake (Charlene Choi). She contrives events so they meet, and the two are soon wed, although Xian believes that she is a woman name Sou. Unfortunately, the titular sorceror Fa Hai (Li), who believes demons and humans can never live together, and his bumbling sidekick Neng Ren (Wen Zhang) are wandering the country battling demons wherever they find them, and having dispatched an ice witch in the opening, soon find themselves on White Snake's trail.
Unfortunately, the film's tonally messy, garish -- with every frame crammed with fourth-rate visual effects -- and perhaps most crucially for a film in this genre, doesn't have a single compelling action sequence. It's not that money hasn't been spent here; there's some truly spectacular production design, handsome costumes (from Wong Kar-Wai collaborator William Chang), and a cast of hundreds. But Ching's approach here seems influenced more by recent Hollywood blockbusters than classics of the genre. The blue screen approach he takes for much of the film can only make one think of Zack Snyder, particular with plentiful speed ramping and fast-cutting, rather than simply letting the fights play out. And there's actually very little hand-to-hand stuff, instead there's a lot of jumping around and waving hands, "The Last Airbender"-style (and that's without going into the shots lifted, nay replicated, from the likes of "Lord of the Rings" and even "2012" -- in the case of the latter, we'd have wondered if the filmmakers simply hadn't licensed the footage, were it not so poorly rendered).
The cast aren't bad, particularly with Li graduating nicely to gruff older men type roles, Huang and Lam managing to squeeze some pathos out of the seemingly endless back and forth, and Zhang coming close to wringing a smile out of the audience, if not a full blown laugh. But the film's so manically overstuffed -- with genres, with tones, with effects -- that both the action and the emotion feels weightless. And the less said about the infuriating wall-to-wall score, the better. Perhaps hardcore Jet Li fans will be able to get some joy out of it, but we'd suspect that even they will struggle with this one. [D]