Overblown and over-CGI’d, but pretty effective in the second half in more of a companion piece than sequel to Gordon Chan’s Painted Skin…
After 500 years of imprisonment, fox spirit Xiaowei (Zhou Xun, Suzhou River, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Beijing Bicycle, True Legend) is released by bird spirit Que’er (Yang Mi, King of Beggars, East Meets West 2011, Love in the Buff, The Bullet Vanishes) as they embark on a quest to become human. Xiaowei seduces men and consumes human hearts to remain in human form, but legend has it that that if a man gives his heart to her willingly then she will be come mortal.
Becoming bound to the disfigured Princess Jing (Zhao Wei, So Close, Shaolin Soccer, Red Cliff, Mulan), Xiaowei bargain’s a way she can regain her beauty and capture the heart of her unrequited love, former royal protector Huo Xin (Chen Kun, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, Rest on Your Shoulder, Let the Bullets Fly). Only Jing does not realise that Xiaowei plans a double cross, nor in turn does Xiaowei realise Jing is on the run from a betrothal to the prince of the warring Tian Lang tribe, on China’s Western borders, led by their Queen (Chen Tingjia, Rhapsody of Marriage) and evil sorcerer (former 80s Taiwanese pop star Fei Xiang, born Kris Phillips).
With Painted Skin: The Resurrection we really are in familiar territory, and not just because it’s a sequel to Gordon Chan’s 2008 film Painted Skin. I t’s not even because the original film came from Pu Songling’s 18th century collection of ghostly tales, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (聊齋誌異, Liaozhai Zhiyi); which not only inspired an earlier version of the story by the great King Hu, his last film, but also included root of the story that was filmed by Li Han-hsiang as The Enchanting Shadow and later by Ching Siu-tung as A Chinese Ghost Story and more recently by Wilson Yip.
Painted Skin: The Resurrection digs deep into common ground in wuxia stories, of demons that take human form and supernatural powers. As such, you can also compare it to Tsui Hark’s Green Snake or Ronny Yu’s The Bride With White Hair. But as the highest grossing domestic Chinese film film of the year (at time of writing) just how does it compare? Not as well as you’d like…
Director Wuershan (The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman), relatively inexperienced in back catalogue terms for having to handle such a big budget, CGI-heavy monster of a film, jettisons so much explanation of his leading earthly characters that we have nothing to pick up on bar meaningful looks and stroppy huffs. It’s the relationship between Princess Jing and Huo Xin that he leaves particularly spartan, leaving little for Zhao Wei and Chen Kun to work off. And with no real on-screen chemistry between the two, it’s difficult to sympathise for any of the characters, particularly a blood thirsty, manipulative and self-centred demon. Interestingly, as noted by several reviewers, the relationship between Xiaowei and Jing that becomes far more poignant in the second half, if with not so subtle lesbian undertones.
It’s something we could never have imagined in the classic wuxia films of the 80s and 90s. Perhaps it was easy to relate to Leslie Cheung in A Chinese Ghost Story as the clueless debt collector who becomes infatuated with bound ghost Joey Wang, but we still felt the same about him when he wooed Brigitte Lin in The Bride With White Hair. Here, that romantic spark has been left out in the rain and just will never light.
A mainly comic side features Feng Shaofeng (White Vengeance, Tai Chi Zero, Tai Chi Hero, The Guillotines) as Pang Lang, a demon hunter, really bad at his chosen profession, who strikes up a relationship with Bird spirit Que’er. Personally the broad comedy fell flatter than scenes from those classics, definitely lacking the ingenuity of directors like Ching Siu-tung or Sammo Hung to lift them above expectations.
And yet The Resurrection does look great: the cinematography by Arthur Wong – a veteran from Shaw Brothers days whose work includes Dirty Ho, Eastern Condors, 2000 AD, Painted Skin, Chinese Ghost Story II and A Chinese Ghost Story 2011 – is fine, and the quality of the CGI doesn’t let the film down. (Sure, the money pumped into this film is really obvious.) The action, when it comes, is capably directed Stephen Tung Wai, returning from the original Painted Skin and with a wealth of experience from films like Reign of Assassins, Beast Stalker, Bodyguards and Assassins, Jiang Hu, Hero and Heroic Duo.
I rather like that most of the original cast reunite, mainly to play different roles. There’s a hint of Buddhism, that these souls could repeat the story over and over again over time, which emphasises the mythological nature of the film.
As the relationship between Jing and Xiaowei develops, the whole film becomes a lot more enjoyable – easily more effective than, say, Chen Kaige’s The Promise, but somehow this isn’t as touching as the original (though in many respects, particularly visually, this is far superior). In spite of another great performance from Zhao Wei – here kicking arse as a Princess who really can look after herself. Undoubtedly, the so-called horrifying disfigurement is little more than an Action Man style scar – hardly impacting on Zhao’s gorgeousness. (Oh, and can I reiterate here how much I want to see her take the lead in a contemporary-set film again?)
Of course, you might have missed that this has recently been released in the UK. What really? Yes. But for some unknown reason distributor Cine-Asia has titled it Demon Hunter: The Resurrection. Yes. I know, quite bizarre. Unlike all other advertising, Chen Kun takes the lead with Fei Xiang in the background, undermining the emphasis of the story (and implying that Chen is the demon hunter and Fei the demon!).
I can only imagine that’s due to Metrodome having released the original Painted Skin earlier in the year, again somewhat mis-sold as a Donnie Yen martial arts film, and with hardly a ripple of publicity. Still seems like a needless disconnect to me with audiences that might have heard of the film, but will not be sure if this is it – or maybe it’s just a plain snub on following sales going to a rival distributor?
Painted Skin: The Resurrection (aka Demon Hunter) is available now on UK Blu-Ray and DVD from Cine-Asia.
Edition: DVD (2012)
Cine-Asia have released this in both Blu-ray and DVD. Like many recent releases, this lacks the punch of previous efforts in terms of extras with just a trailer and behind the scenes galleries. Perhaps that's a knock on effect of their current situation. Though to be fair the original was no better.
Sadly, unlike the Hong Kong Blu-Ray release, the UK Blu-Ray does not include the 3D version.