Queering an Icon, Becoming a Demon: A Review of White Snake: Origins

Liang Luo 

The 2019 animated film White Snake: Origins (Baishe yuanqi), co-produced by Beijing-based Light Chaser Animation and Warner Bros., premiered on January 11 throughout China. It opens with an innovative, hybrid style of ink-painting 3D animation.[1] In the one-minute opening sequence, two snakes who have transformed into beautiful women, White Snake and Green Snake, and their surrounding environment are outlined in charming ink brush strokes. This distinctive aesthetic style is reminiscent of traditional landscape paintings as seen in China, Japan, Korea, and India, as well as in Mizoguchi Kenji’s reinvention of this style in the 1953 live action film Tale of Moonlight and Rain (Ugetsu), one of the first postwar Japanese films with a “White Snake” theme.[2]

In the opening of White Snake: Origins, White Snake and Green Snake are portrayed together in an intimate fashion, their ambiguous relationship emphasized by close bodily contact. Immediately after the opening sequence, however, the animation style quickly changes to 3D CGI based on traditional cel animation, resembling Disney and other Warner Bros. productions of today. Thus, the ink-painting animation sequence formally queers what is often considered today’s animation industry standards, while also thematically queering the iconic romantic narrative between a snake woman and a human male by portraying the intimacy between two women at the very beginning of the narrative.

The Male Lover and His Animal Sidekick: Comically Demonic

Anyone familiar with the 1958 Japanese animation Tale of the White Serpent (Hakujaden, released as Panda and the Magic Serpent in the US in 1961) can see traces of it in the male lover and his animal sidekick in 2019’s White Snake. The addition of Du Dou the talking dog to White Snake echoes the anthropomorphic animal sidekicks in the Disney-influenced 1958 Japanese animation,[3] in which a Kungfu-Panda-like giant panda and a Donald-Duck-like duck enrich the representation of the humanity of the nonhuman in significant ways. Du Dou the dog also reminds us of the abundance of animal characters in the Chinese cigarette cards that were based on the first White Snake feature film series from Shanghai in 1926 and 1927. However, the biggest development in the 2019 animation is the actions of the human male lover Ah Xuan (Xu Xuan, Xu Xian). He declares that he is willing to become a demon in order to be with Xiao Bai (White Snake), making him not only a worthy object of White Snake’s love, but also the most daring and most heroic lover to date, surpassing even the Disney-prince-like characterization of the male lover in the Japanese animation from more than half a century ago.

The 2019 animation introduces White Snake as she wakes up in the Snake-Catcher’s Village, having lost her memory after being saved by Ah Xuan. As White Snake recovers, the mystery of her jade hairpin is revealed. Ah Xuan declares early on to White Snake, “You are not evil.” Later, when they share a boat together, he sings a beautiful song and teaches White Snake to sing. Ah Xuan sings, “Our floating life is like a dream,” and the whole sequence, though animated and in color, resembles the iconic boat scene in Mizoguchi’s live-acted Ugestu, where the female’s (rather than the male’s) singing voice accentuates the transient nature of life. Here we reach a high point in the story that often takes much longer to achieve in other versions of the White Snake legend, where the human lover declares the irrelevance of White Snake’s nonhuman identity: “Yes you are a demon spirit, so what?” Du Dou the dog comes in handy for a useful comparison here: “Even if Du Dou is a demon spirit, I still will like him, and he still will like me.”

Memory loss becomes a plot device in this context, as it does in many TV dramas popular in East Asia. White Snake has no memory of her own demon identity, to the extent that she is shocked by her own giant snake tail: “think about that tail, I am really a demon.” The most significant moment comes when Ah Xuan responds to this revelation with total nonchalance: “If you are, you are.” He reasons, “There are so many evil humans with two legs, so what if you have a tail?” to which White Snake responds, “You are not an evil human,” echoing Ah Xuan’s earlier comment that White Snake is not evil, even though she is not human. Here, the dividing line between good and evil is differentiated from the line between human and nonhuman: an evil human is demonic, while a kind demon can be full of humanity. If demons are as capable of love and empathy as humans, why should we characterize love and empathy as human qualities? If humans are as capable of evil behavior as demons, why should we characterize evil behavior as demonic? In this sense, the humanity of the nonhuman becomes a subverted contradiction and leads the viewers to question the inadequacy of the very concepts of humanity and the demonic. 

As is appropriate to the theme of forbidden love and sexual liaisons, the animators portray the climactic kissing and bed scenes between Ah Xuan and White Snake in a truly realistic fashion with vivid details. This decision was met with raised eyebrows from audiences and critics alike, since sex and animation are still widely perceived as incompatible. Hong Kong-based reporter Josh Ye called for the whole family to avoid the 2019 animation, branding it “Frozen with sex.”[4] The tension between the highly sexual content of the White Snake legend and the choice of animation, traditionally a genre targeting children and families, is a matter of course. In 1958 Japan, the producers of Hakujaden had to deal with a similar set of contradictions when packaging and marketing their films as family friendly and suitable for children.

As a result of their sexual rendezvous as well as their emotional attachment, Ah Xuan declares that he will become a demon in order to be with White Snake. This is the most revolutionary change in the history of the legend’s many plot variations, making the male lover the most radical in his transgressions between the human and the nonhuman. With the help of the Fox Spirit, Ah Xuan exchanges his male essence for the chance to become a demon. He grows a tail and transforms into a demon, while in the process Du Dou the dog apparently loses his tail to Ah Xuan. Thus, as Ah Xuan becomes non-human, Du Dou becomes non-dog, making both of them comically “demonic.” Indeed, earlier in the animation, when White Snake gives Du Dou the power of speech, his newly acquired ability already cements Du Dou’s inclusion in the long genealogy of anthropomorphic animals, whose designations were often more comical than demonic in animation, similar to Donald-Duck-like figures in the 1958 Japanese animation. Therein lie the comical and radical ingredients largely responsible for the new animation’s success: the talking animal (Du Dou), the sacrificial male lover (Ah Xuan), and the female companion (Little Green) are all in service of the female lead, a snake woman.

The Double-Headed Fox Spirit as Enabler of Multiple Transgressions

Recalling the opening sequence, the new animation is in fact projected as a prequel to the familiar White Snake legend. The story opens as the Green Snake helps the White Snake revisit her memories that are sealed in the jade hairpin. The hairpin eventually leads viewers to the Fox Spirit character, the enabler of many of the key transgressions between the human and the nonhuman in the story. Foxes play a major role in the Chinese literary and cultural imagination and have a long history in Chinese legends and folktales,[5] and this new White Snake animation grants the Fox Spirit, a flamboyantly dressed femme fatale figure with the head of a beautiful woman in front and the head of a white fox in the back, the ultimate authority to enable these transgressions. In the film, the Fox Spirit can “transplant flowers and trees, change heaven and earth, transform humans into demons, and convert demons into humans.” She is able to see that Ah Xuan and White Snake have had intimate bodily contact just by observing Ah Xuan’s appearance (the audience witnessed earlier how Ah Xuan had to warm up the frozen White Snake using his body temperature), which she describes as “giving out the air of a demon even when he is a human.” This comment comically echoes the rhetoric used by White Snake to sexually monopolize her human husband in the 1978 Taiwan and Hong Kong co-production The Love of the White Snake (Zhen Baishe zhuan), as in that film, the supposedly more demon-like Green Snake’s bodily contact with the human husband would surely pollute him and give him the air of a demon.

Additional ways of transgressing established boundaries and deconstructing the canon are introduced, light-heartedly, to bring some comic relief to the seriousness of the situation. When asked by White Snake why his secret hideout atop the mountain includes a plaque with the name Bao An Tang (a reference to the Bao He Tang where the male lover ends up practicing medicine in many previous versions of the legend), Ah Xuan simply replies, “I picked it up on the streets,” as if suggesting there is nothing really meaningful in the name. However, these efforts in transgression and deconstruction seem to be half-hearted in other occasions. For example, the umbrella lent by the human lover to the White Snake in the original story still occupies an important position as the key instrument of enchantment in the 2019 animation. It is simply used differently, functioning as a flying device that rescues the lovers as they fall through the air, bringing them safely back to earth. It supports Ah Xuan’s theory of “living freely,” allowing the lovers to ride the wind and roam the sky.

Revising Definitions of Humanity and the Demonic

Throughout the 2019 animation, lines between good and evil and between human and nonhuman are questioned, suggesting that we should be revising our definitions of humanity and the demonic. It is not that the nonhuman is incapable of humanity, but that the very idea of humanity is inadequate. The animation drives home this radical message through a number of thematic developments: queering the heterosexual love story with an emphasis on the homoeroticism between the Green Snake and the White Snake; introducing the anthropomorphic comic sidekick, Du Dou the dog, and the powerful enabler of multiple transgressions, Fox Spirit; connecting the story to Japanese works from Ugetsu, Hakujaden, to the animated worlds of Miyazaki Hayao; and, finally, deconstructing and reconstructing the White Snake canon through the talking animal and the sacrificial male lover and female companion, all in service of the White Snake female lead.

The 2019 animation also queers through formal qualities that enable its male lead to “become a demon.” The ink-painting 3D animation style that opens the film not only reminds viewers of the experimental Chinese ink-painting animations from the late 1950s and early 1960s, but also the ink-painting influenced Japanese feature film Ugestu in monochrome and Japanese animation Hakujaden in the style of watercolor painting, as well as Miyazaki’s “richly realized fantasy worlds and his memorable female characters.”[6] This hybrid approach of both emphasizing traditional aesthetics and experimenting with innovative technology strongly complements the transgressive spirit advocated throughout the film. These formal experiments facilitate multiple challenges to conventional understandings of what an animated film should look like. Following the male lover’s radical decision to volunteer to be a demon to be with his snake-woman lover, the film’s playful articulations of the non-human and non-dog identities of its male lead and his animal sidekick drives home the comical and humanistic qualities of the animalistic and the demonic, and radically revises our understanding of what is expected of humanity and the demonic. Moreover, White Snake contains multiple traces of Miyazaki’s animated worlds of dragons and spirits. In particular, the dragon-like giant python into which White Snake transforms in the new animation brings to mind Haku the white dragon in Miyazaki’s 2001 Spirited Away. Given Miyazaki’s fascination with the 1958 Japanese White Snake animation, such formal legacies seem to suggest that White Snake animations are just like the White Snake theme itself, metamorphosing into an eternally circulating body of work in the style of the tail-eating ouroboros.   

[1] According to Daisy Yan Du, the creation of the first two ink-painting animation films, Little Tadpoles Look for Mama (1960) and The Herd Boy’s Flute (1963), took place in the context of a revival of traditional culture in the late 1950s and early 1960s in China. See Animated Encounters: Transnational Movements of Chinese Animation 1940s-1970s (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2019). White Snake (2019)’s use of ink-painting in combination with 3D animation is considered an ingenious technological breakthrough by the creators themselves in how it retains its distinctive “Chinese aesthetics”; see Sanwenyu, “Mianxiang nianqingren de Zhuiguang: zhuanfang Baishe yuanqi daoyan Huang Jiakang, Zhao Ji” (Light Chaser for the Young: Interviewing White Snake director Amp Wong and Zhao Ji), January 11, 2019, <https://user.guancha.cn/main/content?id=71132>, accessed April 28, 2019.   

[2] In her notes to the Criterion Collection, Keiko McDonald points out that Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu is in a way “reminiscent of the supernatural moods created by Japanese suiboku-ga,” also known as sumi-e, linking Chinese ink brush painting, developed during the Sung Dynasty (960-1274), to the Japanese monochrome ink painting taken back to Japan by Zen Buddhist monks from China in the mid-fourteenth century, see Keiko McDonald, “Ugetsu,” December 29, 1993, <https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/966-ugetsu>, accessed April 16, 2019.

[3] According to Daisy Yan Du, prior to the Cultural Revolution, animated film was replete with anthropomorphic animals in the Chinese context. As animated film began to be dominated by politicized human action in the mid 1960s, animals systematically disappeared from the screen until the late 1970s. See Du, “The Dis/appearance of Animals in Animated Film during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, 1966-1976,” Positions: Asia Critique, 24.2 (2016): 435-479.

[4] See Josh Ye, “White Snake Review: Frozen with Sex is One for the Whole Family to Avoid,” <https://www.abacusnews.com/reviewed/white-snake-review-frozen-sex-one-whole-family-avoid/article/3000534>, accessed April 5, 2019.

[5] See Rania Huntington, Alien Kind: Foxes and Late Imperial Chinese Narrative (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2003) and Xiaofei Kang, The Cult of the Fox: Power, Gender, and Popular Religion in Late Imperial and Modern China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).

[6] Quoted from Susan Napier, Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 152, in Ian Condry, The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), 148.

Bio:

Liang Luo holds degrees in Chinese Language and Literature, Comparative and World Literature, and East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Beijing Normal University (BA, 1997, MA, 1999) and Harvard University (PHD, 2006). After teaching at Harvard University, Brandeis University, and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, she joined the Department of Modern and Classical Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Kentucky in 2008, where she is tenured as an Associate Professor of Chinese Studies in 2014. She is the author of The Avant-Garde and the Popular in Modern China: Tian Han and the Intersection of Performance and Politics (University of Michigan Press, 2014). Her second book manuscript, Gender, Media, and Politics in the White Snake, is currently under review. She is working on a new project with a focus on the generation of interwar international avant-garde artists and their long-lasting relationship with China throughout the twentieth-century, for which she is applying for funding to collaborate with a computer scientist and an intermedia designer to create an interactive video game, in addition to writing an academic monograph.

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