Not to be confused with the recent big budget blockbuster from Gordon Chan of the same name is King Hu’s “Painted Skin”, originally released back in 1993, and now finally resurfacing as a decent quality DVD. Although both films were based upon the same material from the collection “Strange Tales of Liaozhai” from Qing Dynasty Chinese writer Pu Songlin, they are markedly different in terms of approach. Whereas Chan unsurprisingly mined the text for special effects heavy set pieces, the legendary Hu instead aimed for atmosphere and understated sadness, making for an ethereal viewing experience that lingers long in the mind. Adding to the air of melancholy is the fact the film was actually his last, providing a bookend to a career which saw him helm countless classics including “Come Drink with Me”, “Dragon Inn”, and “A Touch of Zen”. Fittingly, he pulled together a top cast of genre favourites, including Adam Cheng (“Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain”), Sammo Hung, Wu Ma, Lam Ching Ying (“Mr Vampire”), and even Joey Wang (“A Chinese Ghost Story”), the Taiwanese beauty, singer and arguably the most popular and winsome spirit in the ghost business.
The plot is likely to be instantly recognisable, even to those even only vaguely familiar with the form – Cheng plays Wong, a scholar who meets and is bewitched one night by a lovely girl called Yau Fung (Wong). Unfortunately, she is in fact a ghost, held in thrall to the evil Yin Yang demon, who forces her to lure lonely men to their deaths. Needless to say, the poor spirit attempts to keep Wong from the evil one’s clutches, only for the scholar to be possessed and go on a murderous spree, which only a friendly neighbourhood Taoist priest (Hung) may be able to stop, at heavy cost.
Though its set up may be incredibly familiar, echoing dozens of late 1980s and early 1990s Hong Kong ghost films, “Painted Skin” does defy expectations in a number of ways. Hu was obviously no mere genre hack, and instead of either playing the premise for unlikely romance or cheap thrills, he largely focuses on Wong’s tragic ghost, with none of the other characters being particularly likeable, especially Cheng’s already married and rather bland failed scholar. Coupled with its beautiful, though rather bleak, misty landscapes, this does make the film wistful and downbeat, a far cry from the usual hysterics, special effects and melodrama of its peers. The pace is slow, with Hu clearly aiming for atmosphere as opposed to either scares or laughs, and eschewing any real attempt at love or genuine emotional connection between the characters. As such, it arguably works more as a more dedicated adaptation of Songlin’s text, and is a ghost film in a far truer sense than others which have used his work for their inspiration.
This is not to suggest that the film is dull, as Hu still includes several scenes of martial arts action, with Hung having a few chances to show off is skills. Though there are few cheap frights and traditional horror shocks, the film is generally unsettling and haunting, albeit in a markedly gloomy rather than eerie manner. The cast are all on fine form, with Wong effectively carrying the film on her slender shoulders, turning in a touching performance that arouses sympathy and pathos. As a result, though quiet and strangely unromantic, the film has an understated depth that engages, and has an air of believability despite its supernatural themes.
Whilst as a result it may disappoint viewers looking for more Hong Kong ghost style wackiness, “Painted Skin” is a poetic affair, and arguably one of the stronger genre films of the period, providing a fittingly funerary last entry on Hu’s remarkable CV. Obviously a must see for all fans of the director and the cast, it should also be enjoyed by anyone looking for a different, more subtle and creepy take on the same old tale of gorgeous ghost meets weedy scholar.
King Hu (director) / Cheng Ah, King Hu (screenplay)
CAST: Adam Cheng … Wang Hsi-Tzu
Sammo Hung Kam-Bo … High Monk
Ching-Ying Lam … Purple Taoist
Shun Lau … Zhang Daoling
Joey Wang … You Feng
Ma Wu … Zhang’s Senior