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A Chinese emissary is sent to the Gobi desert to execute a renegade soldier. When a caravan transporting a Buddhist monk and a valuable treasure is threatened by thieves, however, the two warriors might unite to protect the travelers.
Painted Skin is the last movie that King Hu made, and while he revisits Pu Songling's material from Liao Zai, which he last did for his masterpiece A Touch of Zen, this movie however seemed a little strange and terribly dated, with uninspiring plots and despite the power cast, the characters all came off to be going through the motions, and not injecting any life at all.
I am not sure why or how this project came about, but there were a number of missteps along the way. For example, prior to this 1993 release, Joey Wong had already been type-casted for her many roles as the ethereal ghostly enchantress with her roles in the Chinese Ghost Story franchise by Tsui Hark, up to a point I remember that audiences were sick of her portrayal, and cemented her reputation as a one-act actress. Here, she gets cast again as a spirit of sorts who cannot go to Heaven or Hell, and is practically stuck in limbo.
Her You Feng meets with yet another scholar type character (do I hear the yawns and groans already) Wang Hsi Tzu, played by Adam Cheng, but instead of the usual dashing swordsman type figure that Cheng is famous for, he takes a turn and portrays a character who's main objective is to find a woman who can bear him an heir, because his wife is found barren. Now how this develops is almost comedic - right from the start after Hsi Tzu's initial encounter with a playful priest, he bumps into You Feng, gets horny, brings her home and wants to hump her immediately. If this is not a King Hu movie, I would have fallen out of my chair laughing at this juvenile turn of events!
Painted skin refers to the makeup that ghosts put on to pretend to be humans, because they're stuck in the middle of two planes. It's always interesting to note that the Chinese believe that when you leave this world, you head straight to hell for judgement and punishment, contrary to Western believes that you get to at least line up at the pearly gates (and gawk at the saints), whether or not you get to enter it after the verdict is passed is a different story altogether. When you're in hell suffering, you will start to long for the time to reincarnate (whether as a human is also a different story), but that's basically the gist. However those stuck in this yin-yang domain, as this story goes, are ruled by an evil spirit called the Yin-Yang King, a faceless creature who later on has someone portraying him to duke it out with the heroes.
And the battles here, while choreographed right for excitement, doesn't seem to be sophisticated enough. Bear in mind that this was in the year 1993, where films like Once Upon a Time in China, and Swordsman II were released. Having what is perceived to be a rehash storyline and setting didn't help either, as audiences probably were tired from the female spirit-male scholar-priests-demon king connection. There's no grandeur fight sequences of epic magnitudes, or memorable scenes such as the chase in a bamboo forest. Here, chases are aplenty, more with the good guys running away from a crazed, powerful demon king, than actually engaging it in meaningful combat. We have multitudes of priest characters here, from the 2 resident bumbling, incompetent ones played by Lau Shun (who was the evil eunuch in Swordsman) and Wu Ma, to Sammo Hung as a mysterious High Monk who chooses to hide his identity, and a cameo by the late Lam Ching-Ying (everyone's favourite Vampire Hunter) as a Purple Taoist.
But despite its almost A-list cast, the story was still all over the place, with flashbacks and truly strange scenes which doesn't add much depth to the story, as if to want to cover a wide breadth versus digging in for depth. If compared to A Touch of Zen (which seemed to have its ending parodied here in one of the scenes), Painted Skin is unfortunately no match on all fronts, and it's actually quite a pity that King Hu should bow out with a lacklustre piece such as this.
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