Old Version

A Sight at the Opera

Acclaimed for its stunning visual effects, fantasy film White Snake seeks to bring the thousand-year-old art of Cantonese opera to a new generation of fans

By Kui Yanzhang Updated Sept.1

Standing on a giant rock in the water, Madame White Snake swings her long sleeves to cast a spell. She stirs up violent waves to destroy a magic barrier conjured by the monk Fahai. The raging torrents break the defense and soon submerge Jinshan Temple.  

The scene is from the film White Snake, a retelling of thousandyear-old Chinese folk story Legend of the White Snake. This fierce battle scene is rendered like a traditional Chinese water-ink painting as shades of white, gray and black blend together  

Released on May 20, White Snake is the first Cantonese opera film to combine classical Chinese aesthetics in 4K ultra-high definition. Special effects feature in 90 percent of the film, an impressive feat for an indie studio production.  

The film was a critical success, earning 8.2/10 on China’s leading media review website Douban, the highest score for this year’s domestic productions, outperforming comedy blockbuster Hi, Mom (8.0/10).  

Cantonese opera film, a genre that interprets the librettos of Cantonese opera dating back to the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), has waned in popularity over the past decades. But with its grandiose visual effects, White Snake is drawing audiences of millennials and Gen-Zers to experience the ancient art at the theater for the first time.  

Retelling an Old Story 
On a chilly morning in 2017, a Cantonese opera film played in a small Guangzhou cinema. The audience was thin, and most looked 50 and older.  

Zhang Xianfeng was seated among them. The Beijing-born director was considering an offer to shoot a Cantonese opera film from Guangdong-based Zhujiang Film Group and the Guangdong Cantonese Opera Theater. The film was based on the opera White Snake, which the theater had been staging for four years.  

The director discovered that of the 209 cinemas in Guangzhou, only two showed Cantonese opera films – at 10am.  

“Previously there were only two kinds of Cantonese opera films: recorded stage performances and opera films,” Zhang told NewsChina. 

“However, as the aesthetic language of traditional Chinese opera is essentially at odds with cinematic realism, the overall effect is far from satisfactory. Consequently, they appeal only to a small circle of theater fans,” Zhang said.  

The director still took the job, determined to shoot a version that appealed to younger generations.  

Legend of the White Snake, also known as Madame White Snake, is one of the most popular stories of Chinese folklore. Originating in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the story was canonized in Stories to Caution the World, a collection edited and compiled by Feng Menglong during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).  

The opera’s libretto was written during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1733-1735) in the Qing Dynasty. Over the centuries, the story was retold and adapted in novels, operas, shadow plays, television shows and movies.  

The film is largely based on the tragic romance between Bai Suzhen, a white snake spirit, and Xu Xian, a mortal. Bai Suzhen and her sister Xiao Qing, a green snake spirit, transform into two beautiful women to experience the human world. One drizzly day, the sisters encounter Xu Xian, a handsome young scholar, on the shores of the West Lake in Hangzhou. Bai Suzhen and Xu Xian fall in love at first sight and soon marry.  

But everything changes after a visit from a powerful monk, Fahai. Believing a spirit should never marry a mortal, Fahai seizes Xu Xian and takes him to Jinshan Temple, where he forces him to join the priesthood. To rescue her husband, Bai Suzhen and sister Xiao Qing face off against Fahai at Jinshan Temple.  

The cast is stacked with veteran Cantonese opera performers. Zeng Xiaoming, who plays Bai Suzhen, is president of the Guangdong Cantonese Opera Institute and a leading figure in contemporary Cantonese opera. Wen Ruqing, who performed as Xu Xian on stage for four years, explained it was quite a different experience in front of a camera.  

“On stage, you’re supposed to exaggerate your facial expressions. You have to open your eyes and mouth larger than usual. But you can’t make those exaggerated facial expressions on camera, because it looks quite unnatural,” Wen told NewsChina. 

Stills from Cantonese opera film White Snake

East Asian Aesthetics 
Making an opera film that appealed to young audiences was the greatest challenge.  

Initially, Zhang Xianfeng attempted a Hollywood-style production, believing it would resonate with younger audiences who grew up watching foreign movies and television shows.  

“We tried to put these two strikingly different aesthetics together, but it was a disaster – the classical Chinese aesthetics were completely washed away,” Zhang told NewsChina. Eventually, the production team settled on a palette of East Asian aesthetics.  

The film’s art director, Li Jinhui, graduated from the Academy of Traditional Chinese Opera and teaches at Beijing Film Academy. Li told NewsChina that the film consists of five parts: the lovers’ first encounter, their happy marriage, Bai Suzhen’s rescue of Xu Xian, the battle at Jinshan Temple and Xu Xian remembering his beloved wife. Each part, Li said, is presented through different color palettes inspired by classic Chinese landscape paintings.  

“The scene where the lovers meet for the first time is unveiled in bright, warm and soothing color tones. But for the battle at Jinshan Temple, we drew inspiration from landscape paintings of the Northern Song Dynasty, which have much darker and deeper tones,” Li told NewsChina. 

The production team made conspicuous adjustments to the costume designs. Wang Xiaoxia, the film’s art director, told NewsChina that traditional Cantonese opera costume uses bright, highly saturated colors and embroidered floral patterns. To accord with the overall feel of the film, Wang drew inspiration from classic landscape paintings and adopted a more flowing and abstract style in lighter watercolors.  

“Our main concept was to combine the past and the present – absorbing elements of traditional costumes while catering to the tastes of younger generations,” Wang told NewsChina.  

Rise and Fall 
For many millennial and Gen-Z viewers in China, White Snake is their first Cantonese opera film. But the genre’s history stretches over a century.  

The birth of Chinese cinema is closely related to opera. Dingjun Mountain (1905), the first film produced in China, was adapted from the Peking opera of the same name and featured master performer Tan Xinpei.  

In 1913, Lai Man-wai, known as the “father of Hong Kong cinema,” directed Zhuangzi Tests His Wife – Hong Kong’s first feature film, which is inspired by the traditional Cantonese opera Zhuangzi’s Butterfly Dream.  

Exactly two decades later, the first Cantonese opera film with sound, White-Golden Dragon, debuted in Shanghai. The film was a box office hit in Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. Its enormous success led the Shanghai-based Tianyi Film Company – one of China’s “big three” film producers – to open a studio in Hong Kong, where it made Cantonese-language and Cantonese opera films.  

By the time Japanese forces took Hong Kong in 1941, there were already 150 Cantonese opera films. During the nearly four years of Japanese occupation, Hong Kong’s film industry ground to a halt.  

With the end of World War II came Cantonese opera film’s golden era. Over the next 20 years, 944 films were made in Hong Kong, drawing audiences at home and Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. Only a few Cantonese opera films were made in the Chinese mainland after 1949, such as Guan Hanqing (1960) and Search the College (1956).  

Production ceased in the Chinese mainland during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). At the same time, the rise of television saw the end of Cantonese opera’s golden era in Hong Kong.  

From 1966 to 1968, new productions fell to single figures every year. Moreover, the genre lost another major market as Southeast Asian countries tightened regulations on imported Hong Kong movies in the late 1960s. Although there were a few Cantonese opera film productions in Hong Kong during the 1970s and 80s, the genre never regained its previous popularity.  

In recent years, Guangzhou pushed to revive the art, and Cantonese opera films were shown in domestic cinemas. The city government has launched several projects since 2014 aiming to promote Cantonese operas for stage and film.  

White Snake was one of these projects. Zhang Xianfeng, a Beijing native who graduated from the Central Academy of Fine Arts and built his career filming commercials, never imagined he would shoot a Cantonese opera film.  

While pleased with the reception, the director told NewsChina that he has one “regret:” the story adaptation was not as innovative as the film’s visual achievements.  

As White Snake integrates all the basic elements of traditional Chinese operas – music, poetry, drama and martial arts – any major changes to the libretto would require significant readjustments.  

The film’s biggest deviation is the role of Fahai. In most adaptations of the tale, the monk is an immortal transformed from a toad spirit. But White Snake adopts an alternate origin story: Fahai was once a golden-winged roc – a mythological bird-like beast with roots in Arabian folktales that flies above the seas. The director made this change mainly for visual effect.  

In the final battle at Jinshan Temple, Fahai reveals his true form and flaps his enormous wings to stir huge waves against Bai Suzhen. The battle is fierce but elegantly executed.  

“The process of Fahai spreading his wings to fight is rendered just like an artist painting an ink and wash painting, dipping the tip of a brush with dark ink and swinging the pen elegantly,” Zhang said.  

But for the director, such minor changes were not nearly enough. He said the creators should have put more time into adapting the story to better resonate with contemporary theatergoers. 

“If I were to make another opera film, I’d for sure make many more changes to the story. We can’t keep telling an old story countless times,” Zhang told NewsChina.