Wuershan’s Painted Skin: The Resurrection, a loose sequel to Gordon Chan’s 2008 film Painted Skin, has a fraction of the budget of a typical Hollywood blockbuster (though fairly expensive by Mainland Chinese standards), but succeeds in creating a transporting, opulent fantasy film. Though somewhat overlong (at 131 minutes) and overstuffed with plots and subplots, it still is a diverting, well-made tale suffused with eroticism and a sly sense of humor.
Other than Zhou Xun reprising her role as Xiaowei, a shape-shifting fox demon, and Zhao Wei and Chen Kun returning in different roles, there isn’t much connection here to the earlier film. As Painted Skin: The Resurrection begins, Xiaowei has been imprisoned in ice for 500 years for saving a human life, which apparently breaks the rules governing fox spirits. She is freed by the bird demon Que’r (Mini Yang), who is attracted by her beauty. They then both wander the earth, Xiaowei surviving by feeding on the hearts of men, with Que’r as her apprentice and assistant in luring and seducing them to their deaths. Encroaching sheets of ice threaten to engulf her wherever she is, but the ingested human hearts keep the ice at bay and maintain her beauty. She hopes to become human, but this can happen only during a solar eclipse and with a human heart that is freely sacrificed to her. Xiaowei continues on this quest even though she has become convinced that men are only motivated by her physical beauty, and not out of true love.
Much like classic Western fairy tales, the quest for beauty is at the heart of this tale. The main plot is set in motion when Xiaowei is rescued from bandits by a masked general on horseback, whose warm heart magically melts the ice that overtakes her. Xiaowei, at first, believes she has found the man who can help her become human, but this masked figure turns out to be Princess Jing (Zhao Wei), a member of the Han Dynasty royalty unwillingly betrothed to the prince of the rival Tianliang kingdom.
Xiaowei accompanies the princess anyway to the border town of White City, where Jing has been searching for General Huo Xin (Chen Kun), who is, in fact, Jing’s true love. Huo Xin has exiled himself to White City because of his guilt over failing to protect the princess years ago from a bear attack that left her face scarred, which she covers with a gold mask, Phantom of the Opera style. Huo Xin resists Jing’s pleas to run away with her, both because of his shame and his belief that their status differences would make a romance impossible.
Xiaowei angers Jing by attempting to seduce Huo Xin, raising anxiety in Jing’s mind that Huo Xin refuses to be with her because he is repelled by her disfigured face. Xiaowei then proposes to Jing that they trade skins so that the princess can approach Huo Xin in disguise as Xiaowei to test his true feelings. The scenes of Xiaowei and Jing performing this mystical, ancient form of plastic surgery, while nude in steaming pools, lend the film a potent erotic charge. The story gets even more complicated after this, especially when the Tianliang kingdom threatens war over Princess Jing’s delay over marrying their prince.
Painted Skin: The Resurrection boasts an eye-popping set design that is a mélange of pan-Asian costumes and architecture. Much of the expense of this film has clearly gone into the copious CGI that is actually less convincing than the spirited and surprisingly weighty performances. Zhou Xun and Zhao Wei, two of Asia’s finest actresses, invest a scenario with a strong emotional quality that grounds their roles with a believable depiction of women’s anxieties over their attractiveness to men. In lesser hands, the film could have descended into silliness,
Director Wuershan, hot off the heels of his clever action comedy The Butcher, The Chef, and the Swordsman, successfully makes the transition to the big-budget big leagues with his third feature. He brings a unique personality equally adept at action, comedy, and drama. Many millions of Mainland Chinese viewers evidently agreed, making this film currently the highest grossing Mandarin-language film in Chinese history. And as a movie that privileges strong female energy over martial arts and macho derring-do, Painted Skin: The Resurrection paves a promising path for other future mega-budget spectacles, both in China and elsewhere.