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.