Based upon the classic literature of Liao Zai, Painted Skin is an adaptation of one of the stories that dwell on fox spirits. If you're someone expecting either a supernatural spook fest, or an amalgamation of ghosts and kung fu, you might be disappointed to find out that it's actually a romance through and through, with complicated relationships all around that you can weave a complex web of love and lust amongst the players involved.
Chen Kun plays Wang Sheng, a general whose army recently overrun the camp of a group of barbarians. In their battle, he rescues a beautiful girl from the grasp of the enemy, and brings her home out of pity and suggestive lust, given that she looks like Zhou Xun. OK, so Zhou Xun plays Xiao Wei, who unknowing to everyone else, is a fox spirit (touted always as beautiful beings in their human form) with an appetite for human hearts in order to maintain her beauty and youth.
Thus begins a tussle for General Wang's heart by both Xiao Wei and Vicky Zhao's Pei Rong, who is the dutiful and demure wife of Wang Sheng. Pei Rong is indeed wary and beginning to suspect Xiao Wei's supernatural abilities when a spate of killings surface with her arrival, but with no proof, Xiao Wei starts to sow discord between the man and wife in order to try and become the new Mrs Wang. It's quite an interesting attempt through the characters to tell of the varying degrees and types of love, one of possession in Xiao Wei's ruthless means to reach her objective, and one of sacrificing for the love and well being of the other half, as established through Pei Rong's selfless courage.
But that's not all. Throw in Donnie Yen as an ex-general Pang Yong, who also shares the hots for Pei Rong, and one time rival of Wang Sheng for her affections, a bumbling lowly ghostbuster Xia Bin (Sun Li) who is in possession of a fabled mythical weapon (opportunity to show off some special effects here, and quite a sight to behold too in its temporal usage) and denying her affections for Pang Yong, and Qi Yuwu as a lizard spirit whose infatuation with Xiao Wei ensures that she gets her fair share of food without the need to get her hands dirty. Connected the dots yet?
Fans of Donnie Yen will probably be a tad disappointed by his limited screen appearance, and for the most parts he's either playing the joker, where his jokes will likely be lost in translation, going by the English subtitles that didn't manage to truly capture the essence of his lines, and the remaining screen time having to see him execute some action, but nothing groundbreaking and not seen before. We know what Donnie Yen can do, and perhaps in seeking some form of redemption, the story has a flashback scene where he dons armor yet again (anyone remember the dismal result of An Empress And Her Warriors) and does battle in a scene which Jackie Chan has already stamped his authority on in The Myth.
One could have expected that Gordon Chan is familiar with shooting decent action sequences, but you don't really get a lot of that in Painted Skin, save for some generic rooftop chase in the night, and a be all and end all finale where no punches got pulled, though it really got marred by all the tight shots that all you'd probably get to see is a blur. The narrative also got a little choppy in the mid section, and you do feel that a huge chunk of detail got summarized to keep it running generously under two hours, with subplots dropped that I suspect involved the growing affection and admiration between Pang Yong and Xia Bin, in order not to distract the audience from the main love triangle of Pang Yong, Xiao Wei and Pei Rong.
All in all, this is recommended for Zhou Xun's face off with Zhao Wei, especially with the former playing the temptress role to perfection. The last where we saw two prominent Chinese actresses square off was between Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li in Memoirs of a Geisha. Otherwise, Painted Skin held a lot of promise, but didn't deliver that level of oomph in its final product, lapsing into mediocrity throughout.