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The unbridled visual creativity of big-budget Chinese fantasy films offers a thrilling entry point into Painted Skin 2: The Resurrection, a spectacular mythological period piece that segues from the 2008 film directed by Gordon Chan. But the bigger the expectations, the harder they fall, and many scenes fail discouragingly to live up to the director Wu Ershan’s (The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman) lyrical ambitions, when not downright ridiculous. The result is a roller-coaster of a film that will divide audiences particularly along gender lines, having greater appeal for female viewers both because it is fundamentally a love story with a noble, long-haired, romantic hero, and thanks to the presence of four strong and powerful women characters who run the show. The print screened at the opening of the Shanghai Film Festival was breathtaking in 2D, though a 3D release is planned in China at the end of June.
This classic Chinese ghost story refuses to die, having been adapted for the screen a number of times by directors as illustrious as King Hu. Here the tale follows from its predecessor: Xiaowei (Zhou Xun, reprising her role) is a fox demon who has been imprisoned under ice after saving the lives of human beings in Painted Skin I. Her beautiful face attracts the attention of the female bird demon Quer (Yang Mi), who pecks her out of the ice, effectively reopening a Pandora’s box of trouble.
To regain her youth and beauty, Xiaowei is obliged to devour human hearts, and her first victim is a luscious barbarian prince who will come back to haunt her in the final scenes. But what she really wants is to become human, and that requires a warm, innocent human heart freely given. The rules governing demons are quite intricate, and easily spoofed in the character of comic demon-hunter Pang (Feng Shaofeng) who gets romantic with the bird demon in her pixie-ish human guise.
The main story, however, belongs to Princess Jing (Zhao Wei) and her dashing young guard General Huo Xin (Chen Kun). Jing was mauled by a bear when she was 15, and Huo Xin fled the court in shame at not protecting her. Now, eight years later, she wears a mysterious gold mask on a quarter of her beautiful face, hiding the scars that disfigure her. Donning a man’s armor, she crosses China to find her true love Huo Xin, though his status will never allow them to marry, and though she’s betrothed to the very same Tian Liang barbarian prince that Xiaowei seemed to have dispatched. But never say never in this film. Feeling rebuffed by Huo Xin for her looks (though his reasons for coyness are utterly noble), the aching princess turns for help to the fox demon Xiaowei, who proposes they swap faces and bodies, at the price of taking possession of Jing’s warm heart.
Between Princess Jing, the fox spirit Xiaowei, the cute but powerful bird demon and the fur-clad barbarian princess (Chen Tingjia), there’s not a weak lady in the house. Performances run surprisingly deep, and the bond that links Jing and Xiaowei, in particular, rings very true in spite of the square-off between divas Zhou Xun and Zhao Wei. Women will certainly identify with a lot that is going on here: selfish and selfless love, sacrificing everything for a man, fighting off rivals for his affection, and the frantic search for youth and beauty to capture his heart (mythological “plastic surgery” is clearly a mistake in this story, shown in a poetically-grisly scene of mask-switching.)
On the other hand, all auds will enjoy the visuals and the extraordinary animation sequences that carry the story when it soars high, along with scattered but well-handled fight scenes that show off the superhuman prowess of the young general. His ability to snag a falling coin with an arrow, even blindfolded, gives way to wrestling with giant warriors and snarling wolf-slaves in spectacular later scenes.
The unsuccessful parts are linked to the disappointing depiction of the Tian Liang barbarians, who live in a city carved out of rock beyond China’s Western border. Leading the brood is a tattooed grand wizard (Taiwan pop singer and Broadway performer Fei Xiang a.k.a. Kris Phillips) with a Spiderman halo and shaven head. If the elaborate costumes of Jing’s forces seem inspired by the Terracotta Army, their rivals take their cue from animals, in manners as well as apparel, while their black magic rituals are a laughable throwback to long-outgrown film stereotyping. All this compromises the climactic scenes as Huo Xin’s army storms the barbarians’ Game of Thrones-style fortress, though even here there are moments of great beauty and fantasy.
Bottom line: Spectacular if blemished Chinese fantasy aiming for high lyricism should pull in female viewers and fans of the 2008 original.
Venue: Shanghai Film Festival (opening film), June 17, 2012.
Production companies: Ningxia Film Corp., Dinglangda Culture Development, H. Brothers, Kylin Films
Cast: Zhou Xun, Zhao Wei (Vicki Zhao), Chen Kun,Yang Mi, Chen Tingjia, Feng Shaofeng (William Feng), Fei Xiang (Kris Phillips)
Director: Wu Ershan
Screenwriters: Ran Ping, Ran Jianan
Producers: Pang Hong, Wang Zhonglei
Executive producers: Tao Kun, Pang Yong
Director of photography: Huang Yuetai
Production designer: Hao Yi
Editor: Xiao Yang
Music. Katsunori Ishida
Sales Agent: Huayi Brothers
No rating, 132 minutes
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