Painted Skin: The Resurrection is a sequel to the 2008 film Painted Skin, which starred Donnie Yen, Zhou Xun, Chen Kun, and Zhao Wei. Yen didn't return to the sequel, but the three other principles did. Xun seems to be playing the same character, a comely fox demon, while Kun and Wei are playing different roles.
I wrote "seems" regarding Xun's character since I haven't seen the first Painted Skin. For a while I was troubled by that, and wondered if I'd be able to follow the story. But then again, the first Star Wars film I watched was Return of the Jedi and I figured things out well enough, and I watched Rocky IV before I saw Rocky III and was fine.
Thankfully Painted Skin: The Resurrection is easy to follow since its story is a familiar one: royalty, duty, honor, and painful equivocation about lifelong love. It's less an action movie and more a lavish, fantastical costume romance with some action in it, and yet there are moments of unbridled imagination that remind me of the Chinese fantasy films of the 80s and 90s.
Painted Skin: The Resurrection (Hua Pi 2 | 画皮2)
Duty and rigid social roles are common fixtures in love stories, especially historical ones. It adds an extra obstacle to true love. Not only are the characters hesitant to reveal their feelings because of the personal complications, they're also bound by tradition to love only certain people or by decorum to act a certain way. In that light, loving the people you really love rather than the people you're betrothed to or expected to can take on a subversive quality. A rose by any other name etc., or in the case of Painted Skin: The Resurrection, it'd be azaleas, which are mentioned maybe four times in the last hour of the film.
There's the strong princess (Wei) and her royal guardian (Kun), and their affection for each other goes all the way back to childhood. We get glimpses of a tragic accident that left the princess scarred and has tinged her warrior's love with guilt. At one point, the princess asks her guard if he likes her. Note that it's "like" instead of "love." I wonder if it was just a problem of translation. If not, that's everything you need to know about how repressed their feelings are and how equivocal they are about the possibility of love.
Into their lives comes Xun's fox demon character in the guise of a dancer. The fox demon's ulterior motive: she wants to become human and can do it during the eclipse. She plays trickster and manipulator with these two would-be lovers, trying to get what she wants as a larger conflict between kingdoms unfolds in the background. We get to see the fox demon's true form at one point in the film. It's a moment of temptation between Wei and Xun, latently sexual and brimming with erotic tension. This scene is a thing of otherworldly wonder with just a hint of the Sex and Zen movies, but well short of a Category III rating (that's a Hong Kong NC-17). It's part of the visual spectacle that makes this Painted Skin sequel watchable even as the story goes through the motions.
Painted Skin: The Resurrection jams together a few different genres. In addition to the royal love story and the machinations of the fox demon, there's a comedy involving a bumbling demon hunter (Feng Shaofeng) and his encounters with a bird demon (Mini Yang). It's the comic relief for an otherwise serious fantasy story, with the demon hunter stuttering "d-d-d-demon" in the same way that Scooby-Doo and Shaggy might stutter "g-g-g-ghost." It's also a convenient place for supernatural exposition and a crash course in demon lore, as the hunter consults his generations-old almanac on such matters -- a pre-Tobin's Spirit Guide. That sells these sections short, however. Shaofeng and Yang have such relaxed chemistry together, as if they were in a watchable romantic comedy that happens to involve spirits. It's all so charming while the romance of royalty is all so chivalric.
There's also an action epic in Painted Skin: The Resurrection that sadly only pops up now and again. It involves the evil plot of a shadowy, neighboring kingdom. There's a queen in a wolf fur and a evil sorcerer (who may be speaking Thai, but I'm not so sure). The underlying intrigues weren't all that gripping, but the handful of action scenes are quite imaginative. One major action sequence in the middle of the film made me think that the screenwriters could have diverted some time from the royal romance to either the demon hunter story or the big-scale action story. Or instead, maybe they could have intertwined all of them together earlier since the threads seem pretty disparate until the movie's in its second hour.
The opening credits note that Yoshitaka Amano provided some concept art to the film. His aesthetic is apparent from the princesses's armor and mask to the flowing fabrics and watery colors throughout. There's probably an analog for all of these characters in Amano's art for the first six Final Fantasy games. And thinking of it now, there's something about Xun in fox demon form that's a lot like Terra from Final Fantasy VI in esper form. Again, it's part of that sumptuous visual style that carries the movie along.
While there's the feel of those classic Chinese fantasy films, it's lacking a certain amount of speed. If you look at movies like Zu, A Chinese Ghost Story, or The Bride with White Hair, there's a briskness to everything. We linger long enough to be marveled, but not too long. Even in Chinese fantasies without as much polish as those three, films like Deadful Melody, for instance, or even the Japanese fantasy adventure Legend of the Eight Samurai from Kinji Fukusaku, that briskness adds to the sense of wonder. While watching those movies, it feels like you're trying to keep up with the filmmakers; watching Painted Skin: The Resurrection, it sometimes feels like director Wuershan is trying to catch up to you.
A lot of the joy in a fantasy film comes from a sense of exhilaration, or the sense that you're seeing something you haven't seen before. What's familiar needs to be presented in a new light, we need to say to ourselves, "I never thought of it that way," or, "I never considered that." There's a line from Cuban writer José Lezama Lima that might apply: "Let us try to invent new passions, or to reproduce the old ones with a like intensity." (If only I'd read a Chinese writer who said something similar, it would go here.)
That romance of repression between the princess and the warrior -- a tale we know all too well these days -- could have been given a greater sense of intensity, novelty, or even just pure velocity. It slows the film sometimes, but you can see the moments of pay off and beauty that make it worthwhile. And that's one way to think of Painted Skin: The Resurrection. Be patient and you'll be rewarded, but you'll also want for something more. For instance, now I really want to see the first Painted Skin.