Today’s generation of filmgoers and filmmakers forget that at the very heart of the first cinematic techniques known as “special effects,” there was a shade of mystery and mysticism as well. This otherworldliness made visual sleight of hand seem like an extra-sensory experience, allowing films to transport the viewer into another realm. However, the proliferation of computers and CGI, and the ease of which such imagery could be achieved, created something of a dulling-down of sensibilities. Now, thanks to a decade of DVD armchair critics, if a “special effect” doesn’t approach real world “plausibility” (those dragon scales have to resemble the features of a lizard!) it somehow doesn’t pass muster. Yesterday’s mysticism is today’s manufactured reality.
Although the tide is turning, international cinema doesn’t seem to have received this memo. Possibly due to more creative filmmakers, though likely because it’s not the result of the same five or six effects studios, the CGI in international productions is often “cheaper,” though it allows for a visual sumptuousness that makes stateside productions like “Total Recall” seem faceless by comparison. Carefully fitting into this classification is China’s “Painted Skin: The Resurrection,” an outlandish fantasy that surrenders to overheated melodrama, but nonetheless titillates the eyes like a grand feast.
Similar to the effect superlative visuals can have on a viewer, 'Painted Skin' sets out to deepen the folklore of a demon without demystification. The beautiful Xiaowei (Xun Zhou) is one such being, an ancient fox spirit broken free from her icy grave, restlessly traveling the countryside devouring hearts in order to stay alive. She takes, though she truly wants to accept, as a demon cannot find peace until a human willingly gives their heart to her. Upon the slightest reluctance towards this suggestion, her frequent partners often meet a quick death, their life force quickly torn from their body.
Xiaowei soon finds a kindred spirit in a human warrior, Princess Jing (Wei Zhao). In a hallucinatory flashback, we learn that the golden mask Jing wears is to hide the vicious scarring she received at the hands of an abnormally large bear. Her accident shamed a handsome guard who carried a torch for her, though she remains dedicated to reuniting with him. However, she feels that she cannot do this with her damaged face, her noble battle aptitude unmatched by the shame of her exposed scars. The mask recalls “Phantom Of The Opera,” though it doesn’t hide the other half of Zhao’s gorgeously expressive face.
Jing’s empire is on the eve of an invasion, by a particularly outlandish band of ghouls powered by obscene witchcraft. They unleash men who are powered by the spirits of wolves, and they fire freely upon an undermanned enemy, posing a threat too great to ignore. Unfortunately, lovelorn Jing and the duplicitous Xiaowei have already made a Faustian bargain, allowing Jing’s face to return to normal in exchange for Xiaowei’s brief experience feeling the pain and excitement of human life.
The sequence where Xiaowei and Jing melt into each other is a beguiling standout. The two of them settle into a hot tub, where Xiaowei strips off her corporeal form, revealing a glowing blue specter nearly so blinding it breaks the picture. Gracefully, she moves into Jing, her hand cupping against the small of her back, as she opens the Princess’s skin, slowly inhabiting her from behind. It’s bizarrely vivid and goofily erotic in a way that would absolutely flummox the MPAA were 'Painted Skin' not released unrated.
Moments like this ensure 'Painted Skin' is nothing if not unforgettable, though they shine because the tempo of the film has slowed, the effects accommodating a spare moment rather than contributing to the barreling forward of the story’s momentum. Unfortunately, this cannot last: much of the final third of the film is dedicated to banal race-against-the-clock theatrics and wirework battles that seem to rob the picture of its imagination. All the magic in the world can’t seem to stave off the “requirements” of today’s CG-heavy motion pictures. [C+]