My Heart For Your Skin
Gordon Chan's Painted Skin back in 2008 had Singapore's Raintree Pictures as a production partner, with China born actor Qi Yuwu in one of his many overseas film forays, but the follow up film is a purely all-China affair, showing off what the Chinese film companies can do in terms of storytelling and effects, In all honesty, I prefer Painted Skin II over its predecessor precisely because it took its time to tell a proper story, contrary to the treatment of many mainstream China made films in the similar genre that had overemphasized less than stellar CG effects and sacrificed story along the way.
This is not a sequel, nor is it a prequel to the 2008 film, despite having to share the same title both in English and Mandarin. Most of the primary cast returned, and played totally new characters, where you can speak of this as if it's a spiritual companion to the first film, challenging the same cast in having to portray different characters in what would structurally almost be the same film, except with new themes and characters thrown into the mix, complete with breathtaking landscapes that only Western China could offer.
In this story, the power trio of Zhou Xun, Vicky Zhao and Chen Kun return. Zhou Xun reprises the role where she's the temptress foxy spirit Xiao Wei and the primary antagonist of sorts in this story, ripping out the hearts of man to devour and maintain her mortal looks. Being cursed and needing to fend off her icy prison, she got rescued by Zhao Wei's Princess, a royalty with an incredibly strong heart and a partially masked face, pining for the love of Chen Kun's General, who's at the frontiers to ward off the kingdom's enemies, which also serves as a refuge to hide his true feelings for the woman he believes he cannot deserve after being indirectly responsible for the mishap which led to her disfigurement.
Most of the screen time and plot development went to these three, and the camera just gorgeously captures them all in their romantic dalliances, especially when Xiao Wei becomes the de facto spanner in both the Princess and the General's love life no thanks to a little mesmerizing black magic that's cast to help Xiao Wei in her cause to obtain the Princess' heart, and become human. Sure it's a merry-go-round manner, but we learn certain rules of the game, where a transformation can only take place should a heart be willingly given up, as opposed to forcefully obtained by the demon. And in fact this issue is central and broached more than once in the film.
It revolves around the themes of unrequited love, sacrifice, and the long held belief that we are attracted to beautiful, flawless things, even if it's something a superficial as a woman's looks. The characters go back and forth in dealing with their emotions, and thankfully this served as sufficient back story to their individual characters, allowing a multi-faceted dimension to them, which of course worked wonders for its running time of over two hours. This in addition to the wonderful deliberate visuals that director Wuershan had given this film that the first one didn't possess.
Zhou Xun plays it cool this time round as the scheming Xiao Wei who would discover that being human isn't all that easy given that she has had powers easily taken for granted. Zhao Wei continues in her roles as warrior princesses from Red Cliff and Mulan, and plays to perfection the role of a woman willing to give up anything to be with the man she truly likes. And with two strong female leads playing opposite him, Chen Kun could well be regarded as the current Mr Popular with real acting ability, given license to brood most of the time as the conflicted General who isn't too aware that his eyes were stamped and cursed, leading him away from, and providing him reason enough to stray. The performances of these three together can go on forever.
Granted though with the increase in time dedicated for a special effects showcase, and an unwavering focus on characters, what had to give was the martial arts and fight scenes, which pale in scenes if compared to the first film. The martial arts practitioners were clearly reduced, and the antagonists in the form of the Wolf clan's Shaman (Kris Philips) and Queen (Chen Tingjia) didn't quite provide any real threat save for their sheer numbers of faceless army goons they bring to the fray. Their objective though brings the story full circle, with Mini Yang and Feng Shao-Feng's characters as Xiao Wei's bird companion, and a bumbling demon-slayer respectively, were in just to add to star power and for minor comic relief, being in tangent sub-plots that serve little to the main story.
Still, Painted Skin: The Resurrection actually revived some hopes that the Chinese film industry is capable of coming up with visually attractive, action-adventures that tap on the Liao Zhai sources, if elements in the film were well balanced with an adequate story, backed by solid cast members. And having some really sensual scenes in the film didn't hurt it at all given enough of them to highlight the man-demon transformation which was almost extreme Face-Off like, but in a sexier fashion. Recommended!