Movie Review: Green Snake

Warning: Spoilers

I’d like to contrast two movies I saw recently to illustrate the role of theme And elevating or dragging down entire story.

I enjoyed both movies for different reasons and in different ways, but one was dragged down by a terrible theme, where is the other was elevated beyond its low budget and mediocre cinematography to a thoughtful piece by its theme.

The first movie is Green Snake. The special effects in this movie were fantastic, But even more fantastic was how the world building came to life through the special effects. Essentially this movie which was about a green snake shifter and her white snake shifter sister, set in a world which was an eclectic and exciting mix of the traditional Buddhist concept of the six different worlds, reached through reincarnation, and modern urban dystopia, reached through an Isekai style transportation of an adult character.

At the beginning of the movie, the two snake sisters are attacking a monk defending a beautiful palace. No explanation is given until abruptly, we realize that one of the sisters is holding a baby, and apparently the monk is the father. One of the sisters, the Green Snake, thinks that the best way to force the monk to assume responsibility for his paternity is to seek his annihilation. Or maybe she simply wants revenge. It's implied that the relationship between White Snake and the monk was consensual, that White Snake loved him, so the revenge Green Snake seeks isn't because he raped her sister, only because... ? Why? This is is never explained.

The monk defeats both sisters in battle, but they suffer different fates. White Snake appears to be sent to some sort of celestial heaven, and Green Snake is condemned to hell.

For reasons also not adequately explained, Green Snake, the heroine of the movie, is the one sent to hell which is centuries in the future. Why the time skip? There is no good in-story reason. The obvious out-story reason the movie wanted to do this one so that hell can be portrayed as a dystopian urban landscape, a kind of Shanghai-under-Covid-Quarantine turned Mad Max nightmare.

All of the familiar creatures from Eastern mythology make their appearances, including Rakshasas, Apsaras and a Nine-Tailed Fox. There are also weird demented pigheaded dwarf characters, as well as a few cameos from Western mythology, such as a kraken and Minotaurs.

Eventually the heroine finds out that everyone condemned to this hell is here because they have an obsession over some thing in their previous existence they refuse to let go of. That’s why they are not exactly reborn here, but only condemned to dwell here like prisoners, because they refused the forgetfulness needed for true rebirth in another realm.

The heroine’s obsession is with finding her sister. This obsession is portrayed in the film by the fact that no other interesting plot development ever surplants her obsession with finding her sister. 

At first it seems she might establish a friendship with a modern girl, also condemned to hell for reasons never explored, but no. This interesting character is only there to provide a little bit of info-dumping before she is killed.

A romance is dangled forward as a possibility, but yanked back as unimportant compared to her quest. Then one of the two seeming romantic rivals for her affection turns out to be the reincarnation of her sister, which was the most awkward situation I’ve seen in a movie since it was revealed that Jon Snow and Daenerys were related.

Just… Why? So gross.

However, even after she finds out that this young man is the reincarnation of her sister, she comes to doubt his identity and still insists on looking for her sister. Because of her myopia, the two or separated once again and she discovers her mistake only too late, at the very end of the movie when she is somehow spit out into the modern world.

Then, although the heroine has done nothing to earn it, learned absolutely nothing throughout the film, never grown as a person or matured from a tantrum throwing, venomous snake into a mature, compassionate adult, at the last minute she is reunited with her sister. Thus, the movie has a “happy” ending, normally something I’m all in favor of, and some thing I frankly didn’t expect from a Chinese film.

But apparently a film made by the CCP has an overriding Imperative even more important than delivering a tragic ending: Trashing Buddhism.

It wasn't enough to have the antagonist be a monk who was a hypocrite because fathered a child that he had no intention of raising. The characters in the movie tell us explicitly that religion is not good, that it is only a form of hypocrisy and control.

And yet, the entire universe of the movie is not only Buddhist in terms of the mythology, but even in the laws of karma that it shows operating. We can see for ourselves that the heroine and everyone around her are trapped in hell because of their unhealthy obsessions. 

The movie could have chosen to question some of the tenants of Buddhism, instead of simply calling it nasty names, but on the contrary, despite insulting religion, the movie completely embraces the Buddhist moral universe.

There’s no pushback against the notion that attachments are bad. The movie could have said some attachments are good, worth hang on to: the the heroine could have taken care of her orphaned nephew, rescued her sister from a terrible situation, or indeed done any thing useful whatsoever.

Nope. She's an angry, whiny bitch, whose obsessions hurt and push away even the person she's obsessed over, her own sister. She is never able to establish any mature relationship in place of the one she won't let go of.

The baby, by the way, exist only to indict the monk as a bad person. Green Snake herself shows zero interest in protecting the child or raising him or even finding out his fate, which we never learn. It's like no one even cares about him at all. If that's the case, how is his mother or his aunt supposedly worse than his father? That poor kid...

Green Snake's main battle is against the monk, whom she tries over and over again to destroy. The fact she is attacking a man that her sister loved and the father of her nephew never stops her or even gives her a moment’s pause. She appears to have no conscience. She is indeed nothing but a snake.

In other words, this movie seems to be about a villain who never changes from being a villain. Since she is rewarded at the end for her obsession by simply being given back her sister, through no positive action of her own. The theme or moral of the story appears to be that it’s perfectly fine to be a complete selfish serpent. 

It was this horrible, nihilistic theme that made what otherwise would have been a fantastic movie so unsatisfactory. It left an unpleasant aftertaste in my mouth once I had finished watching it. The world building and the cinematography that brought the world to life was amazing, but the main character was unlikable and the story ultimately was pointless.

Tomorrow, I'll contrast it with another movie.

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