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Gordon Chan’s “Painted Skin” is based on a story in the book “Strange Tales of Liaozhai” by writer Pu Songling, and has been adapted for the big screen twice before – once in 1966 and again in 1993 by the legendary Hong Kong director King Hu. Chan’s movie is what you would call a genre-buster, in that it can’t decide what it wants to be, so it does a little bit of everything, but manages to not do any of them very well. It’s a horror movie about demons, although there’s nothing overly horrific or indeed very scary about it. It’s also a very standard Hong Kong period kung fu movie, complete with ludicrous wireworks, stunts, and a product of the times, gratuitous CGI. You never know when someone will get their hearts ripped out and eaten, or when characters will spontaneously run up walls and engage in aerial sword duels, or plot twists that will appear out of thin air simply because, well, that’s what they felt like doing that day on the set. In many ways, “Painted Skin” is a throwback picture to the heyday of Hong Kong cinema, circa the ‘80s and early ‘90s, back when filmmaking had more gumption than sense, and screenwriting logic was for losers.
The film begins with the heroic young general Wang Sheng (Aloys Chen) rescuing the lovely Xiaowei (Zhou Xun) from bandits in the desert. As it turns out, Xiaowei is not exactly the innocent victim Sheng believes her to be. In fact, Xiaowei is a demon in human form, and must eat the hearts of her male victims in order to maintain her human skin, lest they rot, and nobody wants to see that, least of all the enchanted men who frequents Sheng’s house, where Xiaowei has been staying ever since her rescue. There is an instant attraction between Sheng and Xiaowei, which we know because he keeps having sexual dreams about her, and Xiaowei, well, pretty much says it outright, and actively plots to become his wife. As you would imagine, these long glances between the two don’t exactly go over well with Sheng’s wife Peirong (Vicky Zhao). Matters are not helped by a rash of brutal killings where men’s hearts are ripped out. Killings, it should be pointed out, that began about the same time Xiaowei arrived in town.
Enter Brother Yong (Donnie Yen), a former general comrade of Sheng, who returns to the city a disheveled shell of his former self after two years of wandering around in the desert, heart-broken and, we presume, drinking in inns without the ability to pay. Yong’s sudden but timely return gives Peirong the opportunity to confide her suspicions of Xiaowei, namely that Peirong believes the other woman to be a demon. Of course Sheng wants to hear nothing of it, doing what guys usually do when a hot, captivating woman shows up in their homes – start thinking with the wrong head. Luckily for Peirong, Yong is not one of those fools enchanted by Xiaowei. Plus, he happens to also be her former lover, and although Peirong chose Sheng over him years ago, he still holds a torch for her. With the help of a spunky vagabond demon hunter name Xia Bing (Betty Sun), Yong sets about investigating Xiaowei, while Sheng and his soldiers continue to hunt the city for the demon serial killer.
The film really isn’t as plot-heavy as the two paragraphs I’ve just laid out above would suggest, and by the 25-minute mark everything has clearly been laid out, including the fact that Xiaowei is indeed a human heart consuming demon, and that the demon serial killer Sheng is looking for is also a demon – it just isn’t Xiaowei, as Peirong believes. Not that Xiaowei doesn’t know who the actual killer is; the killer demon frequents her room with offerings of human flesh, something Xiaowei, though noncommittal to the demon’s obvious overtures towards her, nevertheless takes part in, lest her skin start to rot, and a demon seductress bent on stealing another woman’s husband can’t have that. Because, you know, it’s kinda of hard to dump your pretty wife for a gross demon chick with rotting skin, I don’t care what anyone says.
And therein lies one of “Painted Skin’s” biggest flubs – it gives away its Big Reveal so soon that the film has no room to maneuver when it comes to the Xiaowei character. In fact, even before we see Xiaowei reveal her demon side by chewing on a human ear with her male demon pal, we’ve already seen her kill one of her “captors” in the film’s opening sequence. The filmmakers apparently wanted us to forget these points, because later there is an intense sequence where Xiaowei is accused of being a demon and must defend herself. All the evidence would seem to point towards Xiaowei’s guilt, but the demon is a clever witch, and has all the right answers. The intention, obviously, is to force the audience to question their belief that Xiaowei really is a demon. Which is ridiculous, because we already know beyond a shadow of a doubt that she is, in fact, very much a demon. What could have been an effective furthering of a red herring that forces the audience to reconsider their perceptions of Xiaowei is instead reduced to overwrought emotions and more close ups of the film’s two female leads as they look soulfully at various people. It’s all very deep … ly misplaced. What am I watching here, a bad Mexican telenovella?
The rest of “Painted Skin” is not bad, if you enjoy the type of genre-meshing that Hong Kong used to put out on a regular basis back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. There is plenty of everything, just not enough of any one thing to make fans of those genres happy. The action is sporadic, showing up intermittently throughout the film, usually whenever Donnie Yen is onscreen. At one point, Yong engages in a rooftop chase/swordfight with the male demon. Let me also add that this is the same demon that can make himself invisible in daylight ala the Predator and appear and disappear in a puff of smoke. The film is also heavy with melodrama, with Vicky Zhao’s and Zhou Xun’s doleful eyes filling up half of the screentime, at least when the movie isn’t getting its chuckles from Betty Sun’s demon hunter, or Donnie Yen’s sloven Yong. Oh well. At least the whole thing looks good. Say what you will about “Painted Skin”, but the cinematography is one of its best assets, with some interesting shot set-ups, in particular whenever the two female leads are engaging in their oh-so-many verbal and emotional battles. Really, what is this, a soap opera on daytime TV? Which one is the doppelganger and which one is the evil twin sister sleeping with the handsome doctor who is married to the good sister? Oh wait, that comes later on in the movie. Nevermind.
I was confused about what exactly “Painted Skin” had to offer when I first saw Cliff Notes versions of it in the early days of its production, and the confusion only grew as I saw more and more of the film. As it turns out, I was right to be perplexed, because we haven’t seen something like this for a while, at least since the “good old days” (?) of nonsensical period kung fu movies. “Painted Skin” is the kind of movie that I don’t think you can love or hate, because it’s just not that good or entirely that bad. It’s most definitely a mediocre film, and I’m not entirely sure more could have been done to produce a better product. Would I recommend it? Not particularly. The Donnie Yen moments aren’t up to par with what the action star usually puts on the big screen, so seeing it for Yen will leave you disappointed. It’s not really a comedy, as Betty Sun is the only one working the comedy angle and she’s barely in the movie. So what would you call “Painted Skin”? I don’t know, but confounding and sloppy comes to mind, and if you’re fine with a little confounding and sloppiness in your movie, then it’s a perfectly good way to pass the time.
Gordon Chan (director)
CAST: Aloys Chen … Wang Sheng
David Leong … Xia Hou Xiang
Betty Sun … Xia Bing
Donnie Yen … Yong
Vicky Zhao … Peirong
Zhou Xun … Xiaowei