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Original Title:
Hua Pi

China, Hong Kong 2008

Romance, Drama, Horror, Comedy, Action

Gordon Chan

Zhou Xun
Vicki Zhao Wei
Aloys Chen Kun
Donnie Yen
Betty Sun Li
Qi Yuwu
David Leong

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Painted Skin

Story: General Wang Sheng (Aloys Chen Kun) takes down a whole thieves's camp during one of his missions and saves beautiful Xiao Wei (Zhou Xun) from the fangs of the evil barbarians. He takes her home with him where she is his guest since that day. His wife Peirong (Vicki Zhao Wei) isn't happy about their new guest, as she believes that Xiao Wei wants to seduce her husband and take him away from her. But it gets even worse. Since the arrival of the beautiful lady dead people are piling up. Since the victims' hearts were removed it is believed that this has to be the work of a demon. Peirong suspects Xiao Wei to be the culprit, but no one believes her. However, Xiao Wei is in fact a fox spirit that needs fresh hearts, which she gets from her devoted follower Xiao Yi (Qi Yuwu) in order to remain young and beautiful.
Eventually, one day former general Pang Yong (Donnie Yen), a friend of Wang Sheng and former rival in the fight for Peirong's love, enters the town. He runs into female demon hunter Xia Bin (Betty Sun Li), who is as convinced as Peirong that Xiao Wei is a demon. At the request of his love interest from earlier times, Pang also looks into the matter.

Review: "Painted Skin" is an interesting symbiosis of modern Chinese quality cinema the way we are used to see nowadays, and a typical Hong Kong ghost story of the 80s/90s. It's a trip down memory lane and movies like "A Chinese Ghost Story" or "The Bride with White Hair" will pop up in your head, creating a cosy feeling of nostalgia. However, this fact also bestows something curious upon the movie so that some viewer's might actually feel alienated. Moreover, those who expect a martial arts fest because of Donnie Yen's involvement in the movie are also very likely to be disappointed. In fact this film isn't even a horror movie, but a romantic drama through and through, located in a world full of demons, fox spirits and ghost hunters. Therefore, it might also be a bit irritating that Donnie Yen is by no means the actual hero of the story, which you might expect otherwise because of the impression you get from the DVD cover. Instead his characters oftentimes takes a backseat and gives the women of the story more room to convey the story which naturally also shifts the focus more on the love triangle.

The film is based on the Chinese classic "Strange Tales of Liaozhai" by Pu Songling, a collection of Chinese stories with a oftentimes supernatural character. Before Gordon Chan's work, that we are takeing a look at here, King Hu has already made use of this story, which is why there is already a film called "Painted Skin". Back then Joey Wong played the heart-eating monster in the lead, now Zhou Xun ("Perhaps Love", "The Banquet") takes on the role. Zhou proves to be an excellent actress and saves the movie from getting lost in its unsteady pacing and mood shifts. Alongside Vicki Zhao ("Warriors of Heaven and Earth", "Shaolin Soccor"), who also plays her rather complex part with ease, she creates her very own chemistry on screen that stands as the movie's actual heart. Compared to the two the achievements of the other actors are not worth mentioning. At best, maybe Betty Sun ("Fearless") as the tomboy demonhunter deserves a little bit of praise, too.

If you look at it "Painted Skin" is actually dominated by women! But that doesn't come as a suprise considering that Aloys Chen Kun as Wang Sheng delivers an exceptionally shallow performance, his character never exceeding its one-dimensionality. Donnie Yen's ("Ip Man", "SPL", "Flash Point") performance on the other hand is simply too much over-the-top and wacky, which nonetheless leads to him being responsible for some nice laughs, also thanks to his exaggerated acting which somehow isn't that bad as it seems to be intentional. The ladies, though, bring more emotions and a little bit more of consistency into this otherwise absolutely inconsistent messiness of a horror, action, comedy, romantic and drama movie. However, what surely has to be regarded as a flaw here, proves to be a pleasant surprise for Hong Kong fans of the 80s/90s. Because let's be honest, the horror-romantic dramas of that time (and every other one was with Joey Wong in the lead, at least that's the impression most of us have) stood out because of the same exaggerated portrayal of emotions and its wild mix of different genres!

In a sense "Painted Skin" marks the return of this kind of entertainment, resp. it seems like a gesture of respect to this "genre". What's playing Gordon Chan in his hands is that he never tries to take his work too serious. Therefore, the movie, if you can let yourself get entangled in its nature, simply is a lot of fun, despite its at times annoying jumps in pacing and oftentimes uneven character drawings. However, at this point I have to point out that this review is based on the Director's Cut version of the movie. The theatre version should have even more problems to introduce the characters to us appropriately in the small amount of time given and to portray the intrigue-loaden course of events happening at Wang's home in an emotionally appealing way.
The surprisingly light-hearted tone of the movie is also supported by a corresponding score, which doesn't fit to the movie, though. Moreover, the action sequences aren't really worth mentioning, apart from a chase scene over the rooftops of the town at night. The wire-fu fights are fast-cut, messily choreographed and captured, which is why Donnie Yen can never show his true expertise here. Still, this style somewhat fits to the 80s style of horror comedies.

In one respect, "Painted Skin" is superior to the originals and that's the special effects. What had to be done with a lot of plastic and stop-motion sequences, is created at the computer nowadays, so that qualitywise you can actually keep up with western productions, apart from some a litte bit slovenly done effects in the film.
At the end we are presented with an emotional finale, which isn't really a surprise, as we don't expect anything else from a movie that centers around a demon that falls in love with a human. And the ending in fact manages to be moving thanks to Zhou Xun and Vicki Zhao. Therefore, those who are willing to take this roller coaster ride through different genres can have a lot of fun, as far as you never really take "Painted Skin" serious. When all is said and done you are left with a good feeling and the intention to watch some of those classics of the genre again.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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