Hong Kong's official Oscar entry for 2008, Painted Skin, is a big huge mess of a film. Like many of the classics from the golden age, it tries to throw a bit of everything at the viewer.
But, unlike the top movies from Hong Kong, not every genre or style seems to fit in here, and the end result is something that is a bit muddling and badly paced. However, when it works, Painted Skin is quite a fun movie, and that's why it warrants a watching for fans of modern Hong Kong cinema.
Helmed by Hong Kong veteran Gordon Chan, and based on a renowned Chinese novel, Painted Skin tells the story of General Yong (Donnie Yen), a fierce warrior who leaves the service of his commander, Wang Sheng (Aloys Chen) after a particularly bloody battle. Some years later, Wang saves a beautiful woman named Xiaowei (Zhao Xun) during a campaign and brings her back to live at his palace.
Everyone seems to fall in love with Xiaowei, but Wang's wife, Peirong (Vicky Zhao), begins to suspect something's not right with her new guest, and so she heads off to coax her former lover Yong, along with a feisty "demon buster" (Qi Yuwu), to try and kill the evil spirit now occupying her town.
This sort of plot might seem way "out there" by some, but, of course, to seasoned Hong Kong movie fans, it fits right in with what might be construed as a logical and plausible story. Combined with Gordon Chan's penchant for turning the ordinary into something extraordinary (i.e., 2000 A.D.) one might think that Painted Skin could be something very special.
Unfortunately, that is not the case. Normally, even with his lesser efforts, Gordon Chan can be counted on to deliver a very technically competent film. But the editing style employed here, which over-uses fade-outs going into fade-ins, gives Painted Skin the look and feel of an incomplete movie.
Even though Gordon Chan throws a lot of expository scenes at the viewer, they (and the film as a whole) never really seems to gel as a cohesive unit. There's lots of cool-looking shit here -- which is probably why the trailer for this movie looks incredible -- but there's really nothing behind it.
Despite this, if you can forgive the hollowness of Painted Skin, then it actually develops into what might be construed as a great movie in points. At times, the characters are quite engaging, the acting is solid, and the action is exciting, if a bit cheesy.
It's just too bad that none of these elements really seem to fire up together at the right times -- and that is ultimately why Painted Skin is merely a good film instead of a great one.