Unrequited love may be the most painful condition of the heart. To love someone who can't or won't love you back is a hurt that some people never get over. When one of the lovers is the princess of a Chinese kingdom, and the man who refuses her attentions is the general of her father's armies, you've got the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy. Throw a fox demon who needs to devour human hearts into the mix, and you've got a situation that's ripe for a big, lush film.
Xiaowei (Zhou Xun) is a fox demon who escapes from an icy prison as 'Painted Skin: The Resurrection' opens. In order to survive, Xiaowei must devour human hearts, which she proceeds to do. Her captors haven't stopped looking for her, and she realizes the only escape is to become human, a process only heard of in the realm of legend. In order to do this, she must have a human offer their heart voluntarily on the day of a big eclipse. Xiaowei falls into the service of Princess Jing (Zhao Wei) as she travels to the White City on the border of her father's land. Stationed there is Huo Xin (Chen Kun), a general whom Jing not so secretly loves. Huo Xin won't allow himself to be with Jing both because his station is too low and because the last time he indulged his emotions, Jing was scarred by a bear. Xiaowei plans to use this volatile situation to convince Jing to offer up her heart in exchange for Xiaowei's pristine body. Meanwhile, unseen forces may tear all of them apart.
'Painted Skin: The Resurrection' is an ambitious film. The story is Shakespearean in scope, and the budget was clearly ample. The movie has resonated strongly with Chinese audiences, becoming the highest grossing film in the country. And while the filmmakers certainly had grand visions, the final product doesn't quite match.
But first, let's take a look at the good elements. Zhou Xun and Zhao Wei both give excellent performances. More than once during the film, their characters switch skins (the title alludes to the fact that the fox demon wears shed-able human skin), so the actresses don't just play their own characters; they play the other character as well. The two pull off the trick with aplomb, and you believe that the characters have in fact switched places.
Even better is a subplot featuring Feng Shaofeng as Pang Lang, a bumbling demon hunter and the delightful Yang Mi as Que'er, a bird demon that also happens to be Xiaowei's sister. Pang Lang is the only one who suspects what's really going on at the palace, but can't convince anyone. Que'er is fascinated with her sister's quest to become human, and views Pang Lang with curiosity. A bond grows between the two that culminates in the climax. The two provide necessary comic relief from the melodrama of the main plot, and the actors offer up wonderful performances. Yang Mi is especially great, punctuating her role with bird mannerisms. It helps that she's also completely adorable.
Also good is the martial arts choreography. In typical Chinese action style, the fights are immaculately constructed, more of a ballet than a brawl. However, thanks to the editing, the battles do have a visceral edge to them. The scope is broad, going from small one on one tete-a-tetes to huge skirmishes with dozens of players, both natural and supernatural. There's even a thousand man army that appears at one point, although they don't actually go into battle.
Now for the less than good. The romance between Jing and Huo Xin never catches fire. Part of this stems from the fact that Huo Xin comes off like a total jerk for most of the film. It's only when the film is about to reach its end that he becomes noble. While character growth is a good thing, Huo Xin's is too abrupt to work and you constantly wonder why Jing is even wasting her time. Additionally, a big plot point is that Jing things Huo Xin doesn't want her because of the scarring on her face, but the scarring is so minimal that it seems ridiculous that she's worried about her looks at all. Unfortunately, with these things driving the plot, it really drags the whole production down.
The film is also littered with horrible CGI and amateurish process shots. The CGI is somewhat understandable. ILM isn't working on Chinese productions, and this movie clearly had a big budget, so I'm guessing this is state of the art for Chinese cinema at the moment. But the process shots are so bad, it makes rear projection from the olden days of cinema look like a special effects extravaganza. These issues aren't deal breakers, but when you're watching heavy dramatic scenes about the fate of an entire kingdom and great loves, and the backdrop looks like it was made for $10 while the whole image is degraded by the compositing, it's hard to take things seriously.
That being said, 'Painted Skin: The Resurrection' isn't a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. It falls short of greatness on several levels, but the good elements are enough to keep the film entertaining and enjoyable.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Painted Skin: The Resurrection' comes on a single 50 GB Blu-ray disc with a slipcover that matches the cover art and an insert advertising other Well Go USA releases. There are several Well Go USA trailers at the start of the disc that aren't accessible any other way. The trailers are thankfully not forced and can be skipped one at a time.
Well Go USA presents 'Painted Skin: The Resurrection' in a 2.35:1, 1080p AVC-encoded transfer that is very strong on the whole. The image looks very sharp to start, with bold and bright colors that look well balanced and don't suffer from oversaturation. Contrast is spot-on, with both whites and blacks looking correct. I detected no black crush or white bloom. Fleshtones reproduce Xiaowei's milky white skin all the way to Pang Lang's smoky brown features with great accuracy. I noticed no compression artifacts or ringing.
Detail and noise are another story. The poor process shots that looked made it hard to concentrate on the story seem to have added a layer of noise that's not present in the rest of the transfer. Additionally, detail and sharpness drop during these scenes. Everything looks duller than they do in scenes shot in real sets. If this were once or twice in the whole runtime of the film, it wouldn't be a problem. But these shots are frequent, meaning that the transfer as a whole suffers.
The DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 Mandarin mix is less uneven than the transfer, but doesn't transcend into greatness. There's nothing wrong with the mix on a technical level. Dynamic range is broad, and balance isn't an issue. Fidelity is good, with no hiss or distortion evident on the track. The disappointment comes in with the imaging and directionality. Almost all of the action is confined to the front speakers, leaving the rears for the score and isolated sound effects that seem to pop up at random. This makes the soundstage feel unnecessarily cramped, lacking the expansiveness such a big story requires. Again, it's not a bad mix, but it's not a particularly inspired one, either.
'Painted Skin: The Resurrection' was a massive hit in China, becoming the highest grossing domestic film in the country's history. The film has plenty of good points, including compelling performances by the two female leads and some stylish fight choreography. However, it suffers from an underwritten male lead and poor special effects. The special effects are so poorly done that they affect the quality of an otherwise stellar transfer. The audio is reasonable but not exceptional, and the special features are nothing more than PR fluff. On the whole, 'Painted Skin' is an enjoyable ride, if not a wholly successful one.