Dubiously billing itself as “the first Eastern supernatural movie from China” — what about “The Promise,” for starters? — costumer “Painted Skin” weighs in as an off-the-shelf drama-actioner that would have seemed much better 20 years ago. Assembled by a largely Hong Kong tech crew, but starring mostly Mainland thesps, yarn about a mysterious femme who’s actually a flesh-eating fox-devil is the third and weakest pic version of the famous classical short story in the past 40 years. Opening across East Asia in late September, film scored good opening numbers in China but likely will be an ancillary item in Western markets.
Surprisingly selected as Hong Kong’s submission for the foreign-lingo Oscar category, pic was originally slated for helmer Wilson Yip but ended up in the hands of vet Gordon Chan, plus journeymen co-directors Andy Chin and Danny Ko. Hong Kong star Donnie Yen, as a general-turned-ghostbuster, is eclipsed by his Mainland femme cast (Zhou Xun, Vicki Zhao, Sun Li), though the raggedy script and by-the-numbers direction don’t give the thesps much chance to shine.
Story is one of hundreds collected by Qing dynasty scribe Pu Songling, best known in English as “Strange Stories From a Chinese Studio” but also as “Strange Stories of Liaozhai.” (King Hu’s “A Touch of Zen” came from the same collection.)
Original short story features just three characters — husband, wife, mysterious house guest. It was best adapted in the 1966 Hong Kong production “The Painted Skin.” A 1993 version by Hu, like the present item, stirred in a whole host of added material to enlarge its scope.
Setting is the Yuan dynasty: Soldiers rescue beautiful orphan Xiao Wei (Zhou) from desert bandits. This baffling opening, only explained much later in flashback, also sketches the character of Gen. Pan Yong (Yen), who’s resigned his post and ended up a drunken vagrant.
Film starts to gain focus as Xiao Wei is taken in by Gen. Wang (Chen Kun) and his wife, Peirong (Zhao), who both dote on the excessively courteous young woman. But three months after she is adopted, the city is terrorized by an unknown killer who rips out human hearts.
Peirong, who’s become less enamored of Xiao Wei than her hubby, suspects she may be a demon in human disguise, and asks Pan, who served with her husband, for his help. Meanwhile, Pan has become buddies with tomboy ghostbuster Xia Bing (Sun, in pic’s most larky perf), who’s been on the trail of Xiao Wei for years for killing a relative.
One of China’s most versatile actresses, Zhou (“Suzhou River,” “The Banquet”) is good at switching between Xiao Wei’s evil and goody-goody sides, but the jerky script, which shows signs of cutting, doesn’t develop any dramatic steam between the characters, apart from a minimal face-off between Xiao Wei and Peirong near the end. As Peirong, Zhao seems constricted, though not as much as Chen, as her husband, again miscast in a macho role.
Action sequences are ’80s-style Hong Kong fare, with an opening desert battle and a nighttime rooftop chase that are just OK. Visual effects are ditto. Color on print caught had a washed-out look.