Judge William Lee didn't get the expected response when he showed more skin.
Eastern style fantasy strikes again.
At the time of writing this review, Painted Skin: The Resurrection is the top-grossing domestic film at the Chinese box office, knocking down previous record-holder Let the Bullets Fly. In this sequel to 2008's fantasy film, most of the original cast returns for another action-romance of supernatural proportions. This movie works fine by itself since I wasn't even aware that it was a sequel until I viewed the promotional featurettes. However, the convoluted story eventually runs out of steam despite the film's imaginative visuals.
Facts of the Case
Xiaowei (Xun Zhou, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress) is a fox spirit recently escaped from a centuries-long imprisonment in an icy tomb. She roams the ancient Chinese landscape with her sidekick Quer (Mi Yang, Wu Dang) seducing warriors before plucking out their hearts. Eating their hearts keeps Xiaowei looking young and beautiful but if someone were to offer his heart to her willingly, the fox spirit would transform into a human.
After Xiaowei is rescued from bandits by the fierce Princess Jing (Wei Zhao, Red Cliff), she poses as an entertainer in the court and begins flirting with Captain Huo Xin (Kun Chen, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate). However, the princess has had a crush on the captain since they were kids so she takes exception to Xiaowei's friendliness. Princess Jing has a hang-up about her facial scar and she fears Huo Xin is turned off by her disfigurement. The fox spirit proposes a scheme to help the princess win her man's heart. They will switch bodies so Princess Jing can woo Huo Xin using Xiaowei's perfect appearance.
Painted Skin: The Resurrection is a lavish production but its big ambition results in a hodgepodge of ideas and influences. Tibetan locations double for the borderland territory of an ancient Chinese kingdom. Some of the costuming calls on Japanese samurai armor and colorful kimonos. A rival kingdom, where magic has created a wolf-man hybrid army, seems to have come from a distant corner of Middle Earth. This fantasy environment brings together a lot of different influences but they don't quite blend together in a convincing way. The unrestrained production design dips its pen in a few too many inkwells without justifying its broad borrowing.
As the look of the movie is all over the place, so are the rules of its world. Magic plays a big part but its power is applied randomly. I could never be sure if Xiaowei was ever in danger or how much power she exerted over the humans. It's also unclear what the fox spirit wants to accomplish in the movie. She is continually consuming hearts to preserve her beauty and life but if she does become human (when a heart is offered willingly) she would lose her immortality. The beautiful Xun Zhou, tasked with staring blankly most of the time, never conveys what her character wants to accomplish.
Wei Zhao brings some life to her role as Princess Jing despite half of her face being obscured behind a golden mask. She gets to act jealous when she suspects Xiaowei has designs on her man and she gets to act sad when faced with the prospect of losing her true love. Other times, the princess courageously stands by with a stern face while others strategize on her fate but Jing has a few action-packed moments that prove she's more than a bystander.
The loyal captain played by Kun Chen is the dullest point of this love triangle. His good looks betray nothing that might be going on in his head. Huo Xin may be in love with either woman, or not. He may want to bed either woman, or not. When Princess Jing publicly declares her love for him, Huo Xin still won't show his feelings for her. The only thing he surely wants to do is fight for his princess to make up for his failure to protect her so many years before. So it falls to plot points in the narrative to convey the motivations of these characters rather than witnessing their drive to get what they want.
If the frustrated romance between Princess Jing and Huo Xin lacks tension, at least the ambiguous motivation of Xiaowei provides some mystery. Whether her fox is a good or evil spirit makes for some drama during her scenes with the princess. Though it's an odd tonal shift after seeing her rip out some hearts to think Xiaowei may be concerned with Princess Jing's love life. Her true image inspires some of the better special effects of the movie even if she would look more comfortable in a video game. The depiction of Xiaowei's hands penetrating Jing's torso to facilitate the body switch magic walks a fine line between being unsettlingly gross and abstractly beautiful.
A handful of fight scenes will barely keep the attention of viewers hoping for martial arts action during the first half of the movie. Later, the threat of the Tianlang kingdom adds an element of menace that culminates in lengthy battle scenes employing wirework kung fu and CGI armies. As I mentioned before, these bad guys really look out of place in this movie. Their queen looks like a meaner version of San from Princess Mononoke and her sorcerer looks like he walked out from a video game, shared grooming tips with Darth Maul and then accessorized from Tim Burton's closet.
The pacing is a big detriment to the movie as many scenes play out past their point of effectiveness. A lengthy fight scene between Huo Xin and the Tianlang army doesn't really propel the story but just delays a confrontation. The transformation scene when Princess Jing and Xiaowei switch bodies seems to take an eternity. There's much beauty being shown off on the screen but I was anxious to get on with the story. The comic relief provided by two peripheral characters is unnecessary and delivers no results when their light-hearted romance is left unresolved.
Well Go USA's DVD has a gorgeous standard def video presentation. Colors are bold and the bright image really shows off the fine details of the production design. The candy-colored palette accentuates the fantastic mood of the movie. The 5.1 surround mix is quite lively. Dialogue is clear throughout and frequent surround effects are appropriately positioned.
The main supplemental content is a 24-minute making-of promotional piece. "Painted Skin 2: The Making of The Affliction of Love" is actually five short featurettes, each focusing on a different aspect of the production. Director Wuershan (The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman) provides regular sound bites. He and other key (male) collaborators talk about how they've created a "feminized" movie that will appeal to their target demographic. Even the music has been feminized, they tell us, in the segment devoted to the creation of the score. The trailer is also included on the disc.
This kind of fantasy film is designed to appeal to a young audience, so I can understand why the filmmakers borrowed so widely from contemporary popular culture. It feels a little like leafing through an artist's sketchbook and seeing the unfinished ideas contained within. Visually, the movie is an exciting feast for the eyes so it's too bad this mélange of design ideas don't quite fit together. Too many characters with vague motivations and the unpredictability of magic complicate what would be a simple love triangle. The narrative has the surface dressing of an epic romance but the emphasis on visual effects and some lifeless performances render the story mechanical and emotionally cold. The movie is worth a rental for its visual dazzle, but lacks an authentic human heart.
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Studio: Well Go USA
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