|A surprisingly fun, if not exceptional horror-fantasy, Painted Skin is probably the closest current approximation you'll find to that classic early-nineties Hong Kong Cinema feel. Director Gordon Chan and his numerous co-directors deliver what initially looks like another entry in the "let's appeal to Western audiences" sweepstakes. Indeed, Painted Skin seems to be angling for foreign sales with its period setting, martial arts sequences and ornate costumes, but it gratefully moves away from the done-to-death Zhang Yimou/Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon formula for something a little less pretentious.
Painted Skin may look like a quality production, but its feel is closer to Hong Kong's classic wire-fu wuxias. Gordon Chan and company seem less concerned with stately elegance and too-beautiful-for-words production design, and instead amp up the style and obvious fakery. There's still plenty here to alienate an audience - like an odd score, overwrought emotions, misplaced comedy and Donnie Yen - but the entertainment value, both intentional and unintentional, is present if one can drop their expectations for consistent, polished filmmaking. As an update of Hong Kong's once abundant horror-fantasy genre, Painted Skin is a welcome and surprising release.
Painted Skin is based on the oft-adapted Strange Tales of Liaozhai by Pu Songling, a massive collection of Ancient Chinese stories, many covering supernatural subjects. The stories of Liaozhai have inspired countless television dramas and films, including the Chinese Ghost Story movies and the original King Hu Painted Skin, which featured Joey Wong as an immortal demon who stays young by feasting on human hearts. In her downtime she removes her skin and touches up her looks with paint to get that required "almost human" feel - hence the film's title.
Gordon Chan's version of Painted Skin features the same character as the King Hu original, but replaces Joey Wong with Zhou Xun - who is arguably not as beautiful as Wong, but is likely the better actor. Zhou is Xiaowei, an immortal demon who consumes human hearts to stay young and has a shinier, more advanced CGI skin than Joey Wong's lumpy plastic one. She also engages in some minor skin-flashing and is much more openly alluring than Wong's famously ethereal image. As Painted Skin's resident evil temptress, Zhou Xun is a fine and even inspired casting choice.
Despite her supernatural existence, Xiaowei has a human flaw: she's in love. The object of Xiaowei's non-gastric desires is Wang Sheng (Aloys Chen), a righteous and damn good-looking commander in the local military. In the film's opening, Wang Sheng saves Xiaowei - who he takes to be a damsel in distress and not the predator that she really is - from a group of bandits, and she's immediately smitten with her gorgeous savior. Xiaowei accepts shelter into Wang Sheng's home, where she lives with his wife Peirong (Vicki Zhao) and the other soldiers, many of whom have crushes on her. Wang Sheng is aware of Xiaowei's charms too; he occasionally has erotic dreams about her, and finds himself watching her as she small-foots her way around the estate.
Peirong is not oblivious to this undesirable family dynamic, but Wang Sheng is seemingly true to her, and everyone seems to co-exist in a superficially friendly manner. However, the household is shaken up by the return of Yong (Donnie Yen), Wang Sheng's previous commander and a supreme martial arts badass. Yong once had a thing going on with Peirong, and Wang Sheng is all-too-aware of their prior relationship. Making matters worse, a demonic serial killer (Singapore actor Qi Yuwu) is running around town tearing out people's hearts. Between the unresolved romantic tensions and the rampant heart-stealing, it's safe to say that there's tension in the air, and Wang Sheng and his men are right in the thick of both cases.
Peirong, however, thinks that the murders are related to Xiaowei. She has reason to believe that Xiaowei is actually a demon in disguise, and believes her to be responsible if not an accessory to the heart-nabbings. As everyone and her husband is understandably charmed by Xiaowei, Peirong can only turn to old flame Yong for assistance. Yong is skeptical, but is aided in his supernatural assignment by "Demon Buster" Xia-Bing (Betty Sun of Fearless). Xia-Bing possesses the naughty-looking "Demon Rod", which supposedly can slay demons if wielded by the right person. However, the majority disbelieves Peirong's accusations and Xiaowei uses that to her advantage, deflecting suspicion off herself easily. Ultimately, Xiaowei and Peirong enter into a showdown of wills, with the prize being Wang Sheng's heart - in the figurative sense, that is.
The biggest immediate plus in Painted Skin is the cast. Zhou Xun owns the screen with her seductive, thoroughly enchanting turn as an evil demon who learns a few tough lessons about love. Vicki Zhao is also quite good, and has to shoulder arguably the more difficult role. Peirong is a character that needs to earn the audience's sympathy, and Zhao carries the part with dignity and felt emotion. Aloys Chen is solid, but probably upstaged by his good looks (really, he may be the most beautiful person in the film), while Betty Sun likeably recalls the tomboyish female sidekicks essayed by Fennie Yuen or Michelle Reis in martial arts movies of years past. Donnie Yen is Donnie Yen, take him or leave him. In the film, Yen mixes dopey characterization with overdone facial expressions and more than a few bizarre outbursts, and the performance is remarkably amusing, if not appropriate. It's hard to take Yen seriously, which is fine, because it seems most of his performances nowadays fall into that category. Thatís what makes him Donnie Yen™.
But Donnie Yen is around for more than just unintentional laughs. He's also around for the action, which is fast and heavy on the wirework, and entertaining enough in its sporadic doses. There's also an abundance of undercranking - though not during fights but during chases, establishing shots and at other odd times. Odd timing seems to be Painted Skin's thing. Besides the action being messier and sillier than usual, the film serves up a strange and sometimes goofy soundtrack that proves distracting. The editing and camerawork are self-conscious and stylized, with odd pacing, abundant montage, off-kilter angles, and fast camera movement used to convey action, excitement, or more. The techniques do provide a welcome energy to the film, though they also make it seem a little sloppy and cheap.
The film is also sometimes slow, especially during the endless scenes where people debate whether or not Xiaowei is a demon, or whether or not Wang Sheng has the hots for Xiaowei. Despite being a costume horror-fantasy, Painted Skin serves up a lot of double-edged intrigue, not to mention the required overwrought romance, and not all of it is riveting or successful. Gordon Chan lays on the romance especially thick, going for lots of teary emoting and overwrought expressions. The sheer over-the-top romanticism works, however, and the characters do get to act on their feelings from time to time. Characters make felt sacrifices based on their emotions, and while the romance is sometimes laughable in its goopy sentimentality, the filmmakers serve it up in such an over-the-top manner that it can't help but affect.
Overall, Painted Skin feels fake, from the technique, to the acting, to the production design and cinematography. The resulting film feels over over-the-top and messy rather than consistent. If one walks in expecting a reverent, elegant update of the Hong Kong horror-fantasy genre, they'd be disappointed. Frankly, any elegant attempt at this genre could prove disappointing, anyway; does anyone really want to see the horror-fantasy version of The Banquet? Hopefully, that thought entered the minds of the filmmakers, resulting in this uneven mixture of a movie that actually benefits if the audience doesn't take it too seriously. Freed of the requirements of consistency, realism, or restraint, the movie turns out to be much more fun than expected.
The downside to all this craziness is that Painted Skin can polarize its audience. Some people may laugh in enjoyment, others may cry from the overwrought emotions, and others may become annoyed at the messy filmmaking or Donnie Yen's overacting. Really, it's hard to say any of those people are right or wrong, because this is commercial filmmaking that mixes so many genres and emotions that it would probably be impossible to please everyone. Painted Skin can be easily assailed for being messy and uneven, but its mishmash of action, horror, romance, comedy, and chaste eroticism is undeniably diverting. The mixture here is not unlike many enjoyable films from Hong Kong Cinema's early nineties heyday, which foisted so many emotions breathlessly upon the audience that their choice was to either get in or out with what they were seeing. Well, this time I'm in. Painted Skin is not A Chinese Ghost Story, but it feels cut from the same cloth, and that's a welcome thing indeed. (Kozo 2008)