Painted Skin is largely rooted in its overwrought cartoonishness
“Painted Skin” (Other name: HOA BI TRUYEN) has little to no chance at an overseas release, but Donnie Yen fans and aficionados of the genre could make it a modest hit in Asia, at genre festivals and on DVD.
HONG KONG — Until recently, the supernatural action genre dominated the Hong Kong film industry and boxoffice, peaking with the broad success of films like “A Chinese Ghost Story” and “The Bride With White Hair.” Those have all but vanished, and so it’s refreshing to see something so retro grace screens once again, however silly it might be. “Painted Skin” is a welcome throwback, regardless of how successfully it treads familiar waters.
Based on a classical novel by Pu Songling — and notably lacking a screenwriter’s credit — the story begins with General Wang (Chen Kun) and his troops raiding a village and rescuing lovely noble Xiaowei (Zhou Xun) from the uncivilized hordes that have captured her. She travels back to Wang’s village just as a series of gruesome murders begins.
Wang’s wife Peirong (Zhao Wei) immediately recognizes the connection between Xiaowei’s arrival and the murders and gets her old boyfriend Yong (Donnie Yen) and a roving ghostbuster (Sun Li) to snoop around and reveal her for the demon she is. Naturally, no one believes her, and on top of it, Xiaowei has designs on her husband. It’s not long before a long white-haired demon makes an appearance.
Zhao and production designer Bill Lui earned Asian Film Award nominations for their work here, and while Lui has managed a fine re-creation of dynastic China, Zhao is no Brigitte Lin. She is convincing as the determined wife in flashes but spends large swaths of time looking alternately radiant or weepy.
There’s a goofy charm to “Painted Skin,” largely rooted in its overwrought cartoonishness and more than a few lines of dialogue (in the English subtitles) that are classic Hong Kong howlers. Ironically, it is that very tone and slapdash production that will earn the film just as many detractors as fans. Depending on your point of view, it’s either good, kitschy fun or just plain cheesy.