Imprisoned in ice for centuries for violating heaven's law, fox spirit Xiao Wei (Zhou Xun) is freed by lower-ranking bird demon Quer (Yang Mi). All Xiao Wei wants is to become a human being. To do that she must find someone willing to give up their heart. Literally. A string of seduction-murders with torn out hearts proves fruitless until one day, posing as a damsel in distress, Xiao Wei lures a mysterious masked warrior in golden armour. The warrior turns out to be a woman, Princess Jing (Vicky Zhao Wei) whose mask hides a hideously scarred face and who is fleeing an arranged marriage to the prince of the malevolent Wolf Kingdom. Intrigued, Xiao Wei inveigles herself into Jing's court where she discovers the princess is hopelessly in love with General Huo (Chen Kun) who is in self-imposed exile in guilt over failing to prevent her disfigurement. For his part Huo is bewitched by the enticing Xiao Wei. Desperate to win Huo's love, Princess Jing offers her heart in exchange for Xiao Wei's lovely face, not realizing that to maintain this entrancing appearance she will have to devour a living man's heart every day.
For this sequel to Gordan Chan's 2008 blockbuster Painted Skin chameleon-like superstar Zhou Xun reprises her role as sexy spook Xiao Wei while fellow returning players Vicky Zhao Wei and Chen Kun inhabit new roles that could be reincarnations of their original characters. Rather than adapt another traditional ghost story from the writings of Eighteenth century scholar Pu Songling, the filmmakers concoct an original story that nonetheless reflects many of the usual preoccupations of a classical Chinese supernatural yarn. It is a deeply romantic film involving thwarted passion, angst-ridden relationships and a yearning desire to know the human heart. This poetic streak prevents a film otherwise overflowing with stylized fantasy visuals from lapsing into a slick but shallow exercise in CG trickery. Though the langorous pace and emotionally reticent characters may try the patience of some western viewers, as with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) one should factor in the rigid social customs of the time. The central theme that “love is pain” and the desire to perceive every thought that flickers through a loved one's brain can undo a relationship proves powerfully poignant.
As with the original Zhou Xun delivers a charismatic, convincingly otherworldly performance, by turns malevolent and conflicted. The bond that develops between our two flawed anti-heroines adds an intriguing new dimension to the story. We are never entirely sure if Xiao Wei is simply manipulating Princess Jing or feels a twinge of sympathy for her plight. An unexpected friendship of sorts blossoms between the pair culminating in a bathing scene by turns eerie, icky and erotic as strips off her skin, entangles Jing in her snowy-white gorgon-like hair and slides inside the princess' body. Fans of the beautiful leads will likely be thrilled by such unabashed skin-on-skin action but the skin-swap conceit a la John Woo's exuberant Face/Off (1997) also gives Vicky Zhao Wei and Zhou Xun a chance to shine in each other's roles.
With the possible exception of Maleficent (2014), Chinese cinema holds a unique monopoly on fantasy action blockbusters driven by powerhouse female leads. The ever-impressive Zhao Wei matches Xun's intensity as the lovelorn princess though it is worth pointing out Chen Kun, idol of millions, has improved as an actor and makes self-loathing drunk General Huo a compellingly flawed hero. Any viewers bored with all that sorrowful soul-searching can take solace in the flirtatious sub-plot with comely bird demon Quer and inept would-be demon hunter Pang (William Feng, previously paired with co-star Mini Yang in hit Chinese TV drama Palace). Their comical courtship provides a charming counterpoint to all that straight-laced emoting though one still misses the raucous antics of Donnie Yen and Betty Sun Li in the first movie. Come the third act the excitement kicks up a notch when things romp into horror movie territory with Xiao Wei crucified above a mess of her own making, clashing armies, rampaging beast men, death by savage birds, a surprise turn from Chinese-American pop star Kris Phillips as a crazed sorcerer and a psychedelic light-show encompassing a cycle of disfigurement, redemption and true love.
Orchestrating the supernatural mayhem this time around is Wu Er-Shan, the filmmaker who had a seismic impact on the HK film industry with his mind-bending Pulp Fiction by way of Arabian Nights-styled wu xia The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman (2011). Wu Er-Shan is undoubtedly a more flamboyant filmmaker than Gordan Chan but while he outdoes the likes of Zach Snyder and Robert Rodriguez in terms of eye-catching spectacle, still dials it down a notch compared to his hyper-stylized debut. Employing the peerless camerawork of Arthur Wong, one of Hong Kong's greatest and most innovative D.P.s, Er-Shan splashes writhing CGI colour across the screen. Some compared the film's look to fantasy role-playing games. In fact Japanese production designer Yoshitaka Amano is best known for his work on the seminal Final Fantasy games though also has a parallel career as a fine artist and one of the foremost chara designers in anime, so knows a thing or two about telling stories through visuals. Likewise Wu Er-Shan proves he knows the difference between seducing viewers and bludgeoning them into submission. Music by Japanese composer Katsunori Ishida, another anime veteran, with Zhou Xun and Vicky Zhao Wei once again performing that lovely theme song.