Wang Sheng (Chen Kun) is a general who rescues a young woman named Xiao Wei (Zhou Xun) during a raid against desert bandits. Hearing that she is alone in the world he takes her as one of his household’s servants back home. But quickly after her arrival, people are found dead in the city, their hearts ripped off. Wang’s wife Peirong (Zhao Wei) suspects Xiao Wei, but the latter has won everyone over with a kindness. When Wang’s brother Pang Yong (Donnie Yen) comes back from a two-year absence, Peirong begs him to investigate the matter, which he does, with the help of Xia Bin (Sun Li), a young woman pretending to be a “demon-buster”. Adapted from Pu Songling’s short stories in Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, Gordon Chan’s Painted Skin was a big hit in Asia, as well as Hong Kong’s submission for the Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2008. But this latter bidd for worlwide recognition fell flat, and understandably so : Gordon Chan’s film is a ghost story, but one that follows conventions quite alien to western ones.
There is no actual mystery to begin with : we know from the beginning that Zhou Xun’s character is a ghoul (or “fox spirit” as they call it), and that the murderer is Xiao Yi, a “toad spirit” who helps her out of love, eating hearts being a way for her to remain young. In fact Pang Yong and Xia Bin’s investigation is more like flirtatious bantering scored to mickey-mousing music, and is far from being the main focus of the film. That is because Painted Skin is mainly a love story, or rather several love stories. What revelations there are in the course of the film are about the nature of the relationships between the characters, with an emphasis on unrequited love.
Xiao Wei, the fox spirit, does eat hearts, but what she wants is to be loved by Wang Shen. This romantic subversion of what seemed to be a horror set-up makes Painted Skin a fascinating experience ; Xiao Wei, who goes about eating human hearts, wants Wang Shen’s heart, though not in the flesh-eating sense, but in the romantic sense. Wang Shen, meanwhile, is having erotic dreams about her, but loves his wife Peirong more than anything in the world. Peirong herself chose Wang Sheng over Pang Yong, to the latter’s despair, which prompted his two-year absence. Telling it like that makes it sound like a soap opera, but the way the different love stories are interweaved together and underpinned by the horror element is powerfully intriguing, and the uniformly excellent cast is a blessing.
The film belongs to Zhao Wei and Zhou Xun, the former powerfully likeable and moving, and the latter bewitching in her ability to go from scary to touching in the blink of an eye. But the supporting cast is just as superb, with Donnie Yen bringing not only a stylish action element to the proceedings, but also a good deal of levity, mostly in his relationship with the charming Sun Li. Only the androgynous Chen Kun is slightly weak in a role that required a gravitas he doesn’t possess. Visually, Painted Skin is a feast for the eyes, from Arthur Wong’s ravishing illumination-like photography, to Gordon Chan’s smooth, hypnotic directing. Chan has been churning out good films and bad films for a while, but this is the first time he comes close to a great film. Ikuro Fujiwara’s score is both spot-on and left-field : there’s a heart-breaking main theme, but also an almost tango-like action motif that superbly compliments Tung Wei’s expert choreography in the sparse but effective action scenes.
Long Story Short : A powerful love story under the painted skin of an intriguing supernatural tale, Painted Skin is one of a kind, and features two superb actresses at the height of their talent. ****