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One of the biggest Asian cinema events of 2008, “Painted Skin” is the latest film to draw inspiration from Pu Songling’s classic of Chinese literature “Strange Tales of Liaozhai”. Although the legendary King Hu actually directed a film back in 1993 with the same name and based upon the same material, Gordon Chan’s new version is more of a re-imagining, being more in the vein of other recent big budget costume epics, boasting an all-star cast and luscious production values. The film has certainly proved popular, having topped the box office in both China and Hong Kong and despite some mixed critical reviews has been chosen as Hong Kong’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 2009 Oscars. Although only recently released on DVD, a Director’s Cut has now emerged, with an extra 15 minutes of footage, as well as a host of extras.
The film begins as a young maiden called Xiaowei (Mainland actress Zhou Xun, recently in “Perhaps Love”) is rescued from a vicious band of desert bandits by Wang Sheng (Aloys Chen, “Playboy Cops”), who takes her home with him. This immediately sets in motion all manner of romantic complications, with Wang’s wife Peirong (Vicki Zhao, who also had box office success in 2008 with John Woo’s “Red Cliff”) correctly sensing that the innocent seeming newcomer has her eyes set on her husband. What she doesn’t realise is that Xiaowei is actually a demon hiding behind a mask of human skin, who wants Wang’s heart in the worst possible way. The beast is aided, albeit in rather roundabout fashion, by a murderous sidekick (Qi Yu Wu) who causes havoc and sets about decimating the local populace. Thankfully, help arrives in the form of Yong (played by top martial arts star Donnie Yen), Wang’s brother and ex-rival for heart of Peirong, who teams up with a young female demon buster called Xia Bing (Betty Sun, “Fearless”) to try and put a stop to the evil, though increasingly sentimental creature’s schemes.
Despite the potentially grim subject matter, “Painted Skin” is generally light hearted, and doesn’t take itself too seriously – which is probably for the best. The mood does tend to shift, dancing around between comedy, drama, horror and melodramatic romance. As a result the film resembles the kind of human-demon romantic fantasies so common in Hong Kong after the success of “A Chinese Ghost Story”, bringing back memories of “Demoness from Thousand Years”, “Fox Legend” and a host of other early 1990s classics starring Joey Wang. This does give the film a pleasingly old school feel, though of course thanks to its budget it is able to go much further than these earlier and inevitably cruder efforts in terms of scope and scale. This is particularly obvious during the frequent action scenes, which include both epic battles and high flying duels, thrown in frequently by Chan whenever things threaten to slow down. The choreography is well handled, and most of these are exciting, with Donnie Yen and Betty Sun being given a number of opportunities to show off his considerable skills.
Whereas a number of other recent Chinese costume epics have fallen short thanks to shoddy production values or less than special effects, “Painted Skin” is a handsome affair which benefits from some gorgeous visuals and convincing sets. Even the computer effects work quite well and in a rare show of restraint are used sparingly for maximum impact. When finally revealed, the skin shedding and demon make up are imaginative and gruesome, and are all the better for their limited screen time. All of this helps Chan to focus on the human elements of the story, and although the film is certainly of the fantasy genre, it clearly has character drama aspirations.
Perhaps surprisingly, the film also succeeds well enough on this level, mainly since Chan does spend a lot of time attempting to flesh out his characters and to weave a complex web of love triangles, repressed yearnings and ambiguous motivations. Whilst not particularly deep, and occasionally stretching belief, the film is genuinely moving in places, especially as it heads towards its inevitably tragic finale. The characters are all likeable, with the demonic Xiaowei emerging as the most interesting as she goes on her personal journey from heart eater to doe eyed lover. The extra scenes present in the Director’s Cut go some way to helping achieve this, adding a few more layers of character motivation without slowing things down unnecessarily.
Chan directs in his usual modern commercial style, and as such the film is a mixture of epic vistas and visual trickery, with flashy editing during the action scenes and lots of slow motion. Whilst some of his flourishes are rather needless, and are occasionally at odds with the period setting, they don’t really detract from the film, and the proceedings move along at a reasonably brisk pace. The odd soundtrack is worth mentioning, as it staggers around from amusingly grandiose and overblown to weirdly electronic, often adding a touch of unintentional amusement to otherwise dramatic scenes.
This of course fits well enough with the overall tone, and “Painted Skin” makes for fun and entertainingly unpretentious viewing. Whilst it may well be a strange choice for Hong Kong’s Oscar nominee, it stands as one of the better big budget costume epics of the last few years, especially for fans of the old fashioned and long-missed fantasy genre. The Director’s Cut edition is certainly worthwhile, with the extra footage adding some welcome character development and helping to bring to life the film’s emotional core.
Gordon Chan (director) / Songling Pu (screenplay)
CAST: Donnie Yen … Yong
Xun Zhou … Xiaowei
Wei Zhao … Peirong
Kun Chen … Wang Sheng
Betty Sun … Xia-Bing
David Leong … Xia Hou Xiang