18th century scholar Pu Songling compiled 491 folk tales into Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, his literary masterwork that inspired everything from A Touch of Zen (1971) to A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). One of his definitive ghost stories, The Painted Skin, was adapted by iconoclastic Hong Kong auteur King Hu back in 1992 with an all-star cast headed by perennial babe from beyond the grave, Joey Wong. Nearly two decades on, the spooky tale has been revived as a big-budget, CGI-enhanced extravaganza.
In ancient China, drooling bandits surround lovely Xiao Wei (Zhou Xun), who lies captive, naked in furs. Nobody suspects she is really a fox spirit who feasts on human hearts to preserve her youth and beauty, least of all General Wang Sheng (Chen Kun) who ‘rescues’ and brings her home to his kingdom. Everybody is instantly smitten with the newcomer, while Wang Sheng is tortured by erotic dreams, but when corpses start turning up with their hearts torn out, his wife Pei Rong (Vicky Zhao Wei) suspects a demon is at work.
She reaches out to heroic swordsman Pang Yong (Donnie Yen), who still resents Wang Sheng for winning Pei’s hand. Cocky, self-styled “Demon Buster”, Xia Bing (Betty Sun Li) lends sceptical Pang her knowledge of all things supernatural and magic weapons, as together they discover Xiao’s lizard demon ally (Qi Yu Wu) is the murderer. However, it appears Xiao harbours genuine feelings for Wang Sheng, which sparks a supernatural cycle of tragedy, self-sacrifice and ultimately, redemption.
Painted Skin bears little resemblance to the folk tale on which it is based, but that doesn’t really matter. Even King Hu took considerable liberties with his adaptation and ironically the most faithful version was the Shaw Brothers’ softcore sex romp, The Ghost Story (1978). True to the story, Gordon Chan (whose hit and miss efforts range from the excellent Fist of Legend (1995), the overrated Beast Cops (1998) and the underwhelming The Medallion (2003)) opts for a slow burn, slowly spinning a tangled web of suspicion, jealousy and thwarted romance. He occasionally fails to propel the plot with enough verve, so a few subplots fizzle out or remain sketchy, and though the wild camerawork and frenetic action set-pieces hark back to the heyday of the Hong Kong New Wave, a few fantasy sequences remain earthbound. Mounted on a lavish scale with sweeping, widescreen visuals akin to David Lean, the synthesizer driven score is the only thing that sounds cheap.
What lifts this above the ordinary are its frequent plot curveballs, offbeat characterisations and stellar performances. In interesting twists you won’t find in any Western ghost story, Xiao Wei admits her feelings early on and asks Pei Rong’s permission to become Wang Sheng’s concubine, while Pei makes an unexpected sacrifice to save her people. She trades places with the smitten Wei and swallows a magic potion to become a white-haired ghost. Despite a great bit where Xiao Wei rips off her own skin to apply makeup (which is in the original story), the film plays more for tragedy than horror, as the lover’s devotion wounds the she-demon more deeply than any weapon. Vicky Zhao Wei excels in an atypical role (eight years ago she would have played Xia Bing), while Zhou Xun oozes sensuality, adding another star turn to an already impressive roster that includes Suzhou River (2000), Barber in Love (2004), and Ming Ming (2007).
Introduced in flashback as a broody, ruthlessly efficient killer, Pang Yong initially seems tailor made for the one-note Donnie Yen (who co-produced with his regular collaborator Wilson Yip Wai-Shun, director of Flashpoint (2008) and Dragon Tiger Gate (2007)). But in a pleasant surprise, Yen pulls off a warm, affable hero, prone to silly jokes and drunken melancholy. His comedic, love/hate, master/pupil relationship with scowling Xia Bing proves the most compelling. Indeed the star-making performance comes from newcomer Betty Sun Li as the uncouth tomboy who falls for Pang and carries the mysterious “demon dagger that only a true hero will someday wield.” The same kudos cannot be applied to the hopelessly bland Chen Kun who, although his hordes of female fans will disagree, inadequately handles a rigorous role.
Things climax with a three-way tussle between lizard demon, swordsman and demon buster - and interestingly it isn’t Donnie, but Betty who proves the biggest hero and initiates the moving conclusion (“Much hatred in the world can be resolved without killing”). Painted Skin has heart enough to love all its characters, human and demon, living and dead.