Gordon Chan Kar-Seung's "Painted Skin" is a remake of the once popular horror-fantasy genre and looks aimed towards western audiences, no surprise since this is supposed to be Hong Kong's entry to the 2009 Academy awards. The film is based on "The Strange Tales of Lioazhai" by Pu Songling which has inspired numerous television series; including "Chinese Ghost Stories" and the original "Painted Skin" by King Hu which features a demon who stays young by devouring human hearts. Its touches of martial arts action, supernatural lore, elaborate costumes and period settings will no doubt appeal and entertain some, but I have to admit the film isn't for everyone as it will more likely alienate more viewers.
General Wang (Aloys Chen) leads his soldiers to raid a bandit encampment and in turn comes across a beauteous young woman, Xiaowei (played by beautiful Zhou Xun, The Banquet, Ming Ming). Upon their return to their town of JiangDu, brutal murders begin to occur and the victims' hearts are ripped out. A lizard-like elfish creature (Qi Yuwu) is committing the murders, but he does so for Xiaowei who requires human hearts to sustain her appearance. Wang's wife, Peirong (Vicky Zhao Wei) attempts to reveal Xiaowei's secret but she lacks credibility since she is jealous of the beauteous demon. Meanwhile, her former lover, Pang Yong (Donnie Yen) arrives with a demon hunter named Bing Xia (Betty Sun Li) to expel Xiaowei. The battle between humans and supernatural beings are about to begin.
The strongest draw will have to be Zhou Xun--she is so seductive as the demoness with a fatal flaw: she's in love. She overloads the screen with her charisma that it is almost so distracting to look at her--she engages quite a bit in flashes of her silk-like skin although there is a very minor amount of nudity and none of them reveal the female forms most significant parts (which I do think makes her more alluring). The supporting cast isn't so bad, Vicky Zhao also does a great job but I do think that she carries most of the film's burden as her character Peirong will have to generate sympathy--Zhao proves to be up to the challenge although she is somewhat hampered with the film's overwrought emotions. Chen Aloys didn't exactly connect with the two actresses and lacks chemistry with both of them. Donnie Yen is mostly in the film for the action and while there is quite a few sequences of martial arts, it isn't the film's main focus. Therefore, Yen will have to put his "machismo" on hold since the plot revolves mostly on the elements of love, jealousy, spousal duty and sacrifice.
The problems begin with the film when it engages too much style and it feels more like one of those classic wuxia Chinese TV shows than a romantic epic. The action scenes aren't really needed, but Chan opts to make the encounter flashy and full of the usual wire-fu and it looks a little silly in execution. It also introduces certain elements that seems to be throw-away details and became underdeveloped such as when Yong became accused of killing a guard. The subtle attempts at comedy (between Betty Sun's tomboyish character and Yen's character Kong) is a little out of place and felt like it was a minor attempt to lighten the mood. The film would have done quite well as a dark fantasy romantic epic but the director seemed to be just pulling ideas out of his bag of tricks; those said elements just delayed the outcome, rather than add any significance to it. The timing on the comedy accountancies by the occasional out of place soundtrack just made me grind my teeth and made me wonder just what its purpose was about.
I suppose if the film focused more on the love triangle between Wang Sheng, Xiaowei and Peirong rather than stooping to style then I would have most assuredly enjoyed this film much more. There is a lot of emotions to be had, and Xiaowei and Peirong are indeed the most interesting characters in the film, I sure wished that their rivalry and inner spirit were more fleshed out. But I guess they were, but the film's bad timing and mediocre direction just made the emotions a bit unnoticed. The film had potential and does have its dark overtones (you will trip when you see Xiaowei shed her skin and see her inner self) and the film's main premise is interesting enough.
I guess the film just turned out to be a little messy, and lacks consistency. Yen is his usual overacting self, the film is quite sad that it may encourage some to shed tears, some may laugh at the humor, and others entertained with the action--but what it fails to do is the fact that while you throw different styles of emotion at an audience, any film will feel fake and too overwrought that you will lose its significant impact. "Painted Skin" just mixes up too many types of emotions that it fails on a lot of areas and feels marked for commercial appeal, but a film like this would never please everyone. Gordon Chan should have shown a sense of restraint that his end product is just a little too inconsistent and uneven for my taste. Still, the performances by the two lead actresses did almost save the film, and the mix and match between eroticism, horror and romance may prove diverting to some. I guess one has to see this film with an open mind and to keep their expectations low. After all, you do get to watch Zhou Xun-- who just owns the camera with her seductive looks.
Recommended with caution to fans of Chinese cinema, rent it first [3 Stars]
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