Chinese cinema has, in some ways, come a staggering distance over a few short years. In other ways, it hasn’t moved on in decades and decades. ‘Painted Skin: The Resurrection’ has more breathy outbursts from wronged lovers and strange pseudo-sexual and homoerotic encounters than a late-night soap opera, matched with a visual style that points to a level of artistry and invention that even western cinema struggles to match.
It’s also narratively traditional – a Chinese epic set against classic folklore about demons and man’s susceptibility to their manipulation. A sequel to 2008’s ‘Painted Skin’, the titular resurrection revolves around a beautiful and vengeful fox-demon (the arrestingly beautiful Zhou Xun) who is saved by the outcast Princess Jing with her own secrets (played by Zhao Wei, who you might recognize from John Woo’s 2009 epic, Red Cliff). The pair fall for the same man (Chen Kun)– a warrior sworn to protect the princess and fraught with his own demons – literal and figurative. Throw in a comic-relief demon hunter, an adorable bird-demon, a couple of warring factions and some political uncertainty and you have a tale with Game of Thrones-like complexity compressed into 160 minutes.
Director Wu’ershan makes some bold calls with his direction, casting four strong female leads who carry most of the empathetic burden with the audience. While Painted Skin: The Resurrection is most definitely an action epic (grand, sweeping battles, incredible fantasy foes and brutal confrontations), it’s this softer love story that carries you through.
Men are at the mercy of sharp-clawed demons who need human hearts to live. As such, there’s an interesting (and refreshing) role reversal here; women largely have the upper hand during battle sequences; Chen spends more time being thrown though walls by gorgeous women than he does in actual combat. Good, I say.
Painted Skin: The Resurrection is also delightfully sexually ambiguous. There are a few steamy, pseudo-erotic sequences in which the anti-heroic fox-demon ends up bedding men before bathing and ‘exchanging forms’ with women. As traditional as the warring nations and feudal backdrop is, the gender subversion is altogether more modern and clever.
The first act, spend largely introducing the concept of demonology and the key players, is decidedly structurally messy. There’s a gap in the translation too – some jokes fall a little flat for English-speaking (or reading) audiences – but the intentions are clear, even if the translation leaves a little to be desired. It’s actually a blessing in disguise, then, that the developing love story is largely a simple thing: an old-as-dust love triangle fuelled by miscommunication and lust. Old motivations give plenty of blank canvas for Director Wu’ershan to wow us in other ways, however.
For a filmmaker on a shoestring budget, trying to create an epic fantasy can mean compromising physical set building. With this in mind, you can understand the cost-effective freedoms of working almost exclusively with CG battlefields and landscapes. Painted Skin: The Resurrection does a lot with very little, employing slick use of high-speed camera work to assemble some incredible and inventive action sequences. The editing is razor-sharp here, combining punishing hand-to-hand combat with the kind of wirework theatrics rarely seen outside of a videogame.
In fact, every frame in Painted Skin: The Resurrection has been poured over, saturated with colour and enhanced to give lighting extra bloom, shadows more contrast and eyes a little extra twinkle. The look has more in common with modern game design techniques at times than with traditional cinema.
This kind of post-production has added so much game-like flair that, at times, the end effect really does feel like a Square Enix-produced extended-Final Fantasy-cutscene (marginally better than the full theatrical release of 2001’s ‘Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within). The script (or English translation thereof) might be rough at times – and the emphasis on over-the-top romantic theatrics might grate, but there’s so much clip to the pace that Painted Skin: The Resurrection will win you over by sheer swagger and force of personality.