THE SNAKE PRINCE is an unusual love story from the legendary Shaw Brothers studios that combines dancing, pop music, fantasy monsters, and martial arts. Kung fu movie icon Ti Lung is a reptilian demigod who comes to the aid of drought-stricken villagers in exchange for a peasant woman’s hand in marriage. Despite her gradual love for the serpentine prince, the arrangement causes friction between humans and supernatural residents of Snake Mountain. Tragedy befalls the lovers when the bride’s two sisters, both envious of the prince’s wealth and power, get involved. Punishment mete out for their evil deeds sparks a bloody clash between armed villagers and giant, fire-breathing snake men.
THE SNAKE PRINCE is a perfect example of what I like and dislike about Asian cinema. At its best, it is a wildly refreshing menagerie that defies genre convention by drawing together such diametrically opposed elements as Busby Berkeley-like song and dance routines with groovy disco beats and a charming chap who just happens to sprout scales whenever he’s feeling amorous, vindictive or industrious. Live special effects depicting the transformation and various action sequences featuring spitting behemoths that make anacondas look like garden snakes are crude at times yet more often surprisingly effective given the studio’s limited experience with creature effects of this scale.
At its worst, the film presents moments of ludicrous extremes as when Lin gives birth to a giant snake egg and excessive amounts of dated Canto-pop and dance choreography that poses no threat to the superior musical conventions of Bollywood cinema. I will say it is amusing to see kung fu movie stars Norman Chu and Ti Lung dancing the night away in costumes that blend American hippy and rural Southeast Asian fashions. For those of us more accustomed to seeing them as stoic swordsmen, it comes as somewhat of a shock, much more so than Gordon Liu and Kara Hui’s playful musical antics in MY YOUNG AUNTIE.
Songs are dominated by the three main actresses who play sisters, none of them possessing any action ability to speak of unless you count sex appeal. There is Lin Chen-chi in the lead, along with Fanny and Helen Ko. This was Lin’s first leading role and she plays well opposite Ti Lung. It should be noted that shots of her bare body were undoubtedly doubled. Nevertheless, she is a striking beauty with considerable charms. She went on to star in a number of high-profile genre films for Shaw Brothers including THE BATTLE WIZARD and Chang Cheh’s THE BRAVE ARCHER 2. Modesty was no impediment to Helen Ko who sings of her drunkenness and later proudly bares her well-proportioned chest during a seductive public bath that draws the attention of Ti Lung. Like Ko, Fanny tries to put the charms on Ti Lung during a floor show in his palace, although her eyes are really set on his wealth which is predictably guarded by a snake. Ti Lung gets a tune in as well although I suspect someone else’s voice may have been used, at least for the Mandarin track.
In between these musical numbers, director Lo Chen sometimes stumbles haphazardly through an otherwise solid folktale adaptation from writers Ni Kuang and Yu Sze. There are critical gaps in character development, which is common among Hong Kong genre films, yet is more glaring here since Lo Chen appears to be attempting a more even-handed story that isn’t just about superhuman feats of martial arts. But I have to say, the film feels pretty authentic when it comes to presenting fantastical folklore. Students of this aged storytelling form know that it is often unapologetically explicit, particularly in the gruesome finality its wayward heroes meet their ends.
There are many world myths concerning magical snakes that take human form and subsequently get intimately involved with the affairs of humans. One that loosely mirrors the story in this film comes from Lithuania and concerns a peasant girl who falls in love with a sea serpent disguised as a human. The lovers and their offspring meet a similarly fateful ending when the girl’s human family tries to bring her back from an undersea home. From Burma comes a legend more likely to have been of influence to the film. Also titled “The Snake Prince,” it sees a frightened old widow marry one of three daughters to a snake who takes human form to bed with his new bride. Viewers may find it more than a little disturbing to see that the filmmakers have done just the opposite in their version by having poor Lin Chen-chi bed, not with the handsome Ti Lung, but with his slithery alter ego. Snakes frequently populate Chinese myths as well with the story of Madam White Snake being the most famous. This tale conversely puts the female protagonist into the role of the shape-shifting serpent. Tsui Hark adapted this particular story into the 1993 film GREEN SNAKE, starring Joey Wong.
Lo Chen was nearing the end of his long and eclectic filmmaking career by this time. For good reason he isn’t well known among martial arts movie enthusiasts. He mostly directed dramas although he did co-direct THE MAD KILLER (1971) with Ng See-yuen, as well as helm Jimmy Wang Yu’s INVINCIBLE and REVENGE OF THE SHAOLIN MASTER in 1979. As was often the case with late Shaw brothers films by aging directors with little fight or creative juices left in them, THE SNAKE PRINCE is very much a studio film dominated by vibrant, sometimes gaudy production values and stock talent from the studio and TVB, Hong Kong’s leading television station at the time.
The film is visually and audibly appealing for the most part. Sets are typically elaborate and varied while extensive use is made of the picturesque New Territories outside of Hong Kong. Of all the special effects, the fire-breathing snake trick is by far the most impressive, even if it makes about as much sense as the same snake having a full set of teeth to chomp on its victims. My one real complaint is the soft focus lens that is sometimes used on close-ups. Wide shots are usually crisp and clear but for whatever reason DP Kuang Han-lu blurs some of the close-ups. It gets annoying once you notice it go back and forth.
Prolific film composers Chen Yung-yu and Wang Fu-ling cook up a variety of tunes that tap into ’70s pop music with mixed results. Even the bad ones, that contain unintentionally funny translated lyrics, have a certain retro charm to them. Most are served with a bouncy beat that at least keeps the pace moving along.
What viewers should not expect from THE SNAKE PRINCE is strong horror or martial arts action. This will be a horror movie for some. I once worked with someone who had a genuine fear of snakes and would literally freak at the very sight of them, even in a picture. If you have this problem I do not recommend this movie. This movie is filled with both real and fake snakes of all sizes. The real ones are conspicuously handled with relative care and are never made to look like they actually bite anyone. This is not the case for the giant snakes that remain benign for most of the movie and only turn violent near the end.
Kung fu action is relegated to a couple group fighting scenes where the only actor to stand out is Ti Lung. The final match with the snakes doesn’t count as this is more in tune with action you might find in a Western fantasy like JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. The first fight is played for laughs and sees Ti, Wang Yu and Wu Hang-sheng take on angry villagers who are thoroughly outclassed. Ti is extremely crisp in his movements, yet playful. He makes every movement appear effortless, yet fast and fluid. There is one scene where Ti riffs on a classic slapping scene in THEY CALL ME TRINITY and it’s priceless.
THE SNAKE PRINCE is an interesting fantasy film that is worth tracking down if your tastes range towards the bizarre. Gruesome monster violence, some nudity and one awkward sex scene with a giant snake make this a film to keep away from kids and anyone easily offended by such content. Strict martial arts fans won’t see much to their liking apart from a minute or two of Ti Lung doing his thing. The biggest hurdles to get over are the many hippy-disco musical numbers but they definitely have unintentional comic value. Maybe it’s the tattoos on his arms, but Ti Lung still looks cool.REVIEW: Snake Prince, The (1976),
dance • fire • folktale • poison • singing • snake • wedding • wine