Painted Skin (2008)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2009-04-11
“Painted Skin” is a horror movie unless it is a romantic drama with elements of the supernatural, although it could be an updated wuxia since it is based on the “Strange Tales of Liaozhai”. It begins as a sword fighting drama and ends as a mismatched buddy movie and has plenty of deathless love, not always unsuccessful attempts at comedy and more angst than a graduate seminar on existentialism. “Painted Skin” is a mess.

It had too many characters and tried to develop too many stories. Vicki Zhao Wei as the fiercely loyal Peirong had the only character that changed much and she made the most of it. She gets more gorgeous with each passing year. Zhou Xun, the fox spirit (whose character was called Xiaowei for some reason—it seems very close to the sound of Zhao Wei to these gweilo ears)—has an arresting screen presence but doesn’t (yet) have the show-stopping star quality that this character needed, at least as interpreted by director Gordon Chan. Wang Sheng (Chen Kun) and most of the men in his command were in her thrall and willing to ignore that a fearful evil entered their formerly peaceful town at the same time she did. Xiaowei should be as effortlessly enticing as Delilah, Turandot or Helen of Troy. While her world was smaller than that of the other fictional bad girls she was no less in command of the men in it. Brigitte Lin, Greta Garbo or Barbara Stanwyk seemed effortless as women with unquestioned power (supernatural or otherwise) over men. Zhou Xun isn’t there yet.

Chen Kun is one of the most beautiful males currently appearing in films. His character was almost impossibly noble, telling Xiaowei that even though he loved her he was still fully committed to Peirong, something that would never change. He was courageous, inspired loyalty among his men and ruled the town with a light but effective hand—perfect in every way.

Donnie Yen is Pang Yong. When we first encounter him he has sprinted ahead of the detachment he commands in order to close with the enemy. He cuts through an opposing battalion by himself—one move is especially effective but would take superhuman strength and speed so he is clearly the guy for it. Pang Yong leaps straight up and spins, holding his sword out to slash the surrounding soldiers. He not only has the energy to spin a few times on one leap but is able to keep his blade from getting stuck in any of the bone, viscera and armor that it is slicing through. Pang Yong is paired with demon hunter Xia Bing, the delightful Betty Sun Li, an actress of whom I would like to see much more. One could imagine a series of movies built around her tough as nails but not always effective ghost buster.

The writers hadn’t much control over their material. It was as if Shakespeare sat down to writer “Romeo and Juliet”, decided to end it with the last scene from “Hamlet” and then bring everyone back to life before Fortinbras showed up. The domestic drama scenes really dragged—Peirong wondering if Wang Sheng still loved her and if he would continue to do so; Xiaowei wondering if she could force Wang Sheng to love her; the fly eating demon’s desperate longing for Xiaowei; Xia Bing’s infatuation with Pang Yong who might still harbor a secret love for Peirong but who is really only interested in killing demons and getting out of town.

The set design and costume design had a muted palette of blues and earth tones so that when a character appeared in a white dress or cried red tears those colors really stood out. The endless desert vistas, incredibly detailed set constructed for the town and the to die for interiors, somehow both sparse and sumptuous, looked great and blended well although artistry and craftsmanship on that level are expected in big budget Hong Kong movies.

Very much in favor of “Painted Skin” is its lack of pretension—the fate of the world is not at stake nor does the unification of China depend on the outcome of one battle. The town will never be more than an isolated desert outpost, a fort in the middle of nowhere manned by soldiers who slaughter bandits and harass barbarian advance guards. Whatever the outcome of familial drama they will have to saddle up and look for enemies again.
Reviewer Score: 7