I don't know if 2012 has been a great year for Hong Kong film, but it's certainly been one of the most fun. Between Tsui Hark's hugely enjoyable sword on a wire-meets-heist movie "Flying Swords of Dragon Gate," and Ho-Cheung Pang nasty and not at all explicit filmmaking comedy "Vulgaria," I've been more excited about Hong Kong movies for the first time since... I guess before the sweeping historical epic boom kicked off six or seven years ago.
Now we have director Kuo-fu Chen's "Painted Skin: The Resurrection," a sequel to the 2008 martial arts fantasy by Gordon Chan. The first film starred Xun Zhou ("The Empress and the Assassin," "Flying Swords at Dragon Gate") as the fox demon Xiaowei who preys on unsuspecting and lusty men by ripping out their hearts. Her character returns here, freed from 500 years imprisoned in a block of ice and in search of a heart given to her willingly so that she might become human, ultimately become a third part of a love triangle involving a stoic general on the frontier and a scarred princess.
"Painted Skin: The Resurrection" could be considered a skin flick if it wasn't so very careful about showing off too much--and it's this tricky balance the movie pulls off which gives it so much of its charm when bad lighting and cheap CG effects would otherwise overwhelm it. Much of the focus is on Xiaowei's time with Princess Jing (Vicky Zhao, star of Jingle Ma's "Mulan"), and how sometimes that translates in naked, magic embraces in pools of water. There's a reason for this: the demoness is attempting to convince the princess to swap bodies and give up her heart so that the princess can get make time with her childhood friend, General Zhao. The General, for his part (Kun Chen, "Flying Swords at Dragon Gate," "Let the Bullets Fly"), spends his time on the border, drinking his troubles away, still feeling guilty about allowing the princess to be scarred by a bear attack when they were children. Plus, flitting around the margins of the story is Princess Jing's betrothal to the prince of a savage, wolf-worshiping kingdom, which, by the end of the movie, puts another heart at play.
Preventing the whole thing from becoming a mopey slog are several better-than-expected staged fights and three very pleasant to look at leads who would really like to get down with one another but, for whatever reason can't. Seriously, not to sound like too much of a creep (the sure sign of a creep), but I could look at the glammed up Vicky Zhao and Xun Zhao all day as they breathlessly plot how to win the General's heart.
I can't find the name of the choreographer offhand, but several of the bruising hand-to-hand and weapons-based fights (notably the one outside of the gate as well as the final battle in the villains' lair) have an unexpected weight to them, and a wonderful flow of action.
Some of the broad comedy at play is less successful--a subplot featuring a charlatan demon hunter goes for the wacky too often and feels like a complete 180 from the rest of the movie. We're also asked to care about his relationship with a bird spirit but that plot is played so broadly that it's hard to really feel the weight of it by the end. Similarly, the effects work is ambitious but by now you know the score. "Painted Skin: The Resurrection" also has the dubious distinction of being a movie with very well-framed shots that look ugly and garish thanks to being almost criminally over-lit (consider the cave fight in the end which is supposed to be lit by torches and is as bright as a department store).
Presentation and Special Features
Well Go USA's disc acquits the movie quite well with a Mandarin audio track and English subs in slick, sharp 1080p. The colors are rich, although the picture is so sharp that you'll notice how un-film it can look with the poor lighting.
Well Go USA has also included the half-hour doc "The Making of Painted Skin: The Resurrection Featurette" which includes the cast and crew talking about the production of the film. Curious thing: the subs for all of the speakers are fairly good but for whatever reason, all of the captions for any onscreen text are absolute gibberish. The film's theatrical trailer is also included.
"Painted Skin: The Resurrection" is available now on DVD and Blu-ray from Well Go USA.