A supernatural costumer about a fox demon’s hunger for true love and live hearts, “Painted Skin II: The Resurrection” combines technical razzle-dazzle with a competently told yarn that allows its stars to shine. Taking the reins from Hong Kong helmer Gordon Chan, whose 2008 “Painted Skin” hit the B.O. jackpot in China and sparked a still-unexhausted demand for this genre, mainland helmer Wu Ershan injects a visual zing, influenced by manga and online games, into the sequel’s classical literary roots. Zanily imaginative within its commercial parameters, the pic should draw handsome returns from its China release, and reasonable Asian-genre ancillary.
For 500 years, fox demon Xiaowei (Zhou Xun) has been encased in ice as punishment for using magic to save a mortal she loved. Yet, such is her beauty that even in deep freeze, she attracts Que’r (Mini Yang), a bird demon with a handy beak. They escape to the mortal world, but Xiaowei must seduce men and devour their hearts to keep herself from reverting to a popsicle. A long-term remedy exists, but it’s a little too much to ask: Someone must willingly offer their heart for Xiaowei’s delectation during an eclipse. The plot heats up when she encounters warm-hearted princess Jing (Vicky Zhao).
Fairy tales can make one blase about a princess’ trials and tribulations, but Jing is clearly one of the unluckiest of all time. Her royal guard, Huo Xin (Aloys Chen), doesn’t bat an eyelash when she confesses her love for him. Minutes later, a bear mauls her face to a bloody mess.
Eight years later, Jing arrives in White City, a border outpost where Xin has retreated to wallow in guilt. Jing wonders if absence has made the heart fonder. Xin (whose name ironically means “heart”), however, has his roving eyes set on foxy Xiaowei. When it transpires that Jing came to White City to avoid a political marriage to Ashun, heir to the throne of rival kingdom Tianlang, Xiaowei presents the princess with a Mephistophelean offer that includes an extreme makeover.
Reuniting the main cast from “Painted Skin” to dance a familiar romantic rondo of indecision, possessiveness and self-sacrifice, the sequel engages with its more femme-centric focus. Its paradoxical theme that beauty is skin-deep yet still irresistible to men reflects a well-founded female anxiety. Despite the three distaff protags’ initially opposing agendas, their relationships are suffused with sympathy (at times veering into Sapphic intimacy).
Zhao expresses deep love and equally strong insecurity with considerable subtlety, though highest kudos go to Zhou for making a thesp as attractive as Zhao look plain in her presence. Yang, though given a lightweight role, comes into her own in a charming subplot involving a flirtatious friendship with a nerdy, by-the-book demon-slayer (William Feng). Chen, however, is visibly weak both as a martial hero and male object of desire.
Wu’s sophomore helming effort demonstrates the same sharp, individualistic visual sense (bold primary colors, tableau-like action setpieces) evident in his martial-arts pastiche “The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman,” and the director clearly delights in genre play, though he sometimes takes things to kitschy excess.
Unfettered by any cultural baggage associated with the “Painted Skin” series, now in its fourth incarnation, the story arc strays far from its source, “Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio” a Qing Dynasty anthology of supernatural stories by Pu Songling. The film freely channels aspects of “300,” “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “John Carter” and even John Woo’s “Face/Off.”
Pic runs a fraction too long at 131 minutes, and the narrative risks being smothered by CGI, which is above-average by non-Hollywood standards but could have been used more sparingly; stylized action choreography would benefit from tighter editing. Katsunori Ishida’s percussion-heavy score contributes to the energetic tempo. The diverse geography of Tibet offers landscape locations of mythical grandeur.
Though the pic will be released in 3D, the version reviewed at the Shanghai fest was in 2D.