|Donnie Yen does not return for Painted Skin: The Resurrection a.k.a. Painted Skin 2 and that’s just fine. Yen upped the martial arts quotient of director Gordon Chan’s 2008 hit Painted Skin, but his stoic presence felt incongruous with the film’s ensemble cast and Chinese Ghost Story-esque horror-fantasy tone. Lacking genuine martial arts, Painted Skin 2 compensates with solid entertainment, and earns bonus points with surprising eroticism, delightfully weird bad guys and culturally-inaccurate but nonetheless alluring sets and costumes. Best of all, Painted Skin 2 possesses a genre story that’s remarkably sound and free of any SARFT-approval screenwriter traps. The whole thing is a little baroque, but that adds to the fun.
A distant sequel to the 2008 original, Painted Skin 2 finds immortal fox demon Xiaowei (Zhou Xun) roaming China centuries after performing a rare act of nobility. As punishment for violating heavenly law, Xiaowei is imprisoned in ice, but she’s freed by lower-level bird demon Qu’er (Mini Yang). Back hunting human hearts to survive, Xiaowei decides upon a new goal: she wants to become human. However, she can only complete the transformation during a rare solar eclipse and if a human willingly gives Xiaowei his or her heart. That’s a tall order, but Xiaowei finds a situation that may suit her needs. The disfigured Princess Jing (Vicki Zhao, not reprising her role from Painted Skin 1) may be open to a trade: her heart for an immortal life. Jing’s promised boon: everlasting beauty. The rub: she’ll have to eat human hearts to survive. Choices, choices.
Duh, Princess Jing’s demonic bargain is due to love. The Princess pines for the manly General Huo (Aloys Chen, also not reprising his Painted Skin 1 role) and only with Xiaowei’s help might the two be together. The reasons for Huo and Jing’s romantic schism include royal duties, melodramatic self-loathing and a plenty of sad backstory, all of which the filmmakers dole out over two-plus hours. Painted Skin 2 has only occasional action but possesses oodles of visual style and slow-motion theatrics courtesy of director Wuershan, who’s no stranger to stylized filmmaking. However, compared to the over-directed assault of Wuershan’s The Butcher, The Chef and The Swordsman, Painted Skin 2 is a leisurely stroll. Wuershan unfolds his situations deliberately, dressing up the neatly developed storyline with stylized CGI-enhanced visuals. It’s all very fake but also quite entertaining, like watching RPG cutscenes.
The RPG comparison is apt; Painted Skin 1’s look firmly signaled China, but the sequel goes for an opulent Asian mishmash. Costumes and architecture are a combo of Japanese and Chinese influences, and the barbaric bad guys look like rejects from Princess Mononoke. Final Fantasy image designer Yoshitaka Amano is credited with the film’s concept design and indeed much of Painted Skin 2 resembles Amano’s ethereal Final Fantasy artwork. The storyline twists and turns divertingly, and Wuershan adds to the mix with some unexpected erotic imagery. At times, Vicki Zhao and Zhou Xun share a bath, where they rub and even swap their naked skins. Naughty bits are hidden and body doubles are obvious, but seeing the two beautiful actresses frolic covered only by water and steam is enticing. Sometimes things get a little creepy, with shadow and composition making it seem like Zhao and Zhou are conjoined twins swimming in the womb. Heterosexual men still should not complain.
Naturally, Vicki Zhao and Zhou Xun’s acting abilities are a huge plus. The two top-billed actresses can handle seductive gazes and soulful emotion with equal skill, so it’s a treat to watch them in Painted Skin 2, where – thanks to the skin-swapping plot device – they can do both. Aloys Chen starts as somewhat of a himbo but recovers nicely to anchor some of the film’s most deliriously romantic sequences. Mini Yang is fetching in the film’s cute/sexy role, with William Feng providing effective comic support as Yang’s demon hunter love interest. One surprise is Chinese-American popstar Kris Phillips, whose legendary handsome visage is unrecognizable beneath a skull cap and white make-up. The fiftysomething Phillips plays “the Wizard”, one of the film’s main baddies and a frontrunner for inclusion in the Camp Villain Hall of Fame. If your Painted Skin 2 ticket cost HK$80, then Kris Phillips is worth at least 25% of that.
Painted Skin 2 occasionally trips up. The pace does lag mid-way, the characters don’t always behave credibly, and the romances are more than a tad self-absorbed. Wuershan is terrific with visuals but he fails to provide that storytelling spark that someone like Tsui Hark would have. The comparison is a bit unfair because not just anyone can be Tsui Hark. However, likening these modern Painted Skin films to Tsui’s seminal Hong Kong Cinema is valid due to their mix of fantasy, comedy and lurid romance. Painted Skin 2 does possess some of that indescribable multi-genre joy, where a film can shift emotions from grand romance to icky horror in just a heartbeat. The results are equal parts “wow” and “wtf”, but the filmmakers’ desire to entertain eventually endears. Eschewing grand significance or arch cleverness, Painted Skin: The Resurrection instead goes for straight up commercial appeal, and it succeeds handily.