Killer Imports: Painted Skin

Killer Imports is a regular feature on Film Junk where we explore foreign-language films from around the world that haven’t yet had their chance to shine.

When I first saw the DVD for Painted Skin, Donnie Yen’s prominence as the main star caught my attention. I have never really been a big fan of his, but I’ve enjoyed the movies he has been in. Most Westerners will probably know Donnie Yen from Iron Monkey which Quentin Tarantino brought to North American audiences after the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I was disappointed by Iron Monkey. Beyond his prowess at fighting, I’ve wondered if he can emote.

The story is based on a classic Chinese short story that has been filmed several times in the past, and this film is a remake of a 1993 film with the same name by legendary filmmaker King Hu. This leads me to wonder why on the DVD cover I have, the film is billed as “The First Eastern Supernatural Movie from China”. And I’m pretty sure it’s not the first unless it’s using some narrow definition of “supernatural”. A Chinese Ghost Story and The Bride with White Hair come to mind as earlier supernatural films. Oh, maybe all the earlier films are considered as Hong Kong films?

This period piece has a soldier (Chen Kun) liberating a damsel (Zhou Xun) in distress from opposing forces. This damsel soon falls in love with the soldier who is faithfully married to his wife (Vicki Zhao). A returning general (Donnie Yen) who had left the army after supposedly been tired of killing is actually in love with the soldier’s wife. She knows this, but she made her choice marrying the soldier although she innocently still cares for the general. The general has also brought a tom-boyish female buddy (Betty Sun) with him and together they hunt demons. The female buddy is actually in love with the general. Meanwhile, there is another peripheral character (Yuwu Qi) who lurks around and, as you may have suspected, is in love with the damsel. (There’s also another minor soldier who likes the damsel.)

Amidst this love hexagon, there is plenty of unrequited love pairings that you might suspect would provide some heavy melodrama and dramatic conflict. The actors do their best to display their longings, but maybe it’s the translation to English that prevents the dialogue from bringing in any emotional resonance. The acting is not naturalistic. This is typical for Chinese costume dramas; yet, there is a regality to the proceedings where decorum is more-or-less maintained until the climax. Donnie Yen is as stoic as ever; rather than wearing his heart on his sleeve, he seems to have concealed it perhaps in his sword sheath. The forced humor is provided by the interaction between Donnie Yen’s character and his female companion who discreetly hides her femininity.

In my plot summary, I’ve avoided spoiling who the demons are, but this isn’t set up as a mystery. It’s clear to the audience who the demons are from the outset, so the suspense comes in wondering how long the demons can remain disguised. The film doesn’t try to be scary although maybe I’ve become inured to heart eating.

The action credited to Wei Tung isn’t choreographed or edited very nicely in my opinion. I had not heard of Wei Tung before, so I did some research and was surprised to find that he’s listed as a martial arts choreographer for Zhang Yimou’s Hero, which is my favorite martial arts film! And then I discovered that Wei Tung is in Enter the Dragon as the student whom Bruce Lee admonishes near the beginning of the film with the classic lines, “Don’t think! Feel! It is like a finger pointing a way to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.” It seems like Wei Tung may have been concentrating on the finger during Painted Skin.

I think I’ve gotten bored of Donnie Yen’s fighting style. I’ve seen three of his recent films: Flash Point, Dragon Tiger Gate, and SPL (aka Kill Zone). There were some impressive scenes in each of these films, but I think my favorite film of his is In the Line of Duty 4, directed by Yuen Woo Ping of The Matrix fame.

The major co-director is Gordon Chan who directed Jet Li’s Fist of Legend and Jackie Chan’s The Medallion. Many people hold Fist of Legend in high esteem. Over at Dragon Dynasty, Bey Logan has some blogs about being on the set of Painted Skin with Gordon Chan. I wasn’t able to find out why co-directors were involved, but from the little details I did find, I think Gordon Chan was brought in to help out for some reason and save the film.

I did enjoy the music which was modern with tinges of the Orient. Battle scenes had music that felt westernized to me. The music is by a Japanese composer, Ikuro Fujiwara, who has quite a few credits, but nothing of renown to me. Painted Skin did garner Hong Kong Film Award nominations for Best Original Film Song and Best Original Film Score.

The special effects are nothing we haven’t seen from other films. There is a demon that is vaguely reminiscent of the X-Men character, Nightcrawler, although bronze in coloration instead of blue. He has a frog-like tongue for eating flies, and an invisibility effect like a Predator.

Painted Skin has twelve nominations for Hong Kong Film Awards in 2009. It was a box-office success in China and Hong Kong when it was released in the fall of 2008. Perhaps this influenced Hong Kong to submit Painted Skin for a 2009 Academy Award in the Foreign-Language Film category. Its subsequent lack of a nomination was justified in my opinion.

I think my main problem with the film is the lack of originality. The romantic elements didn’t jell to make me feel anything even though self-sacrifice is involved. And the retelling of familiar plot elements wasn’t compelling enough to make me really enjoy this film.

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  • Jack

    The real catch of this film is that “Painted skin” is a famous acient Chinese story and most Chinese already know the story well. While previous version with the same name largely stick with the original, this film COMPLETED CHANGED the plot, while still kept the core spirit of the original story. So to most Chinese who knew the original story, the film is quite a refreshment.

  • Reed Farrington

    Jack, I haven’t read the original story. Do you know if there is an English translation anywhere on the Internet?

  • Humeichi

    Ip Man best shows a few of Donnie Yen’s strengths as an actor and martial artist combined.

  • Humeichi, I agree that Ip Man showed Donnie Yen’s versatility with his martial arts, but I doubt whether it showed any acting skill. There was a moment of tenderness that he showed in a scene with his wife, but I don’t think the script demanded too much acting talent.

    So far, the acting that I’ve seen from Donnie Yen is on par with Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, or Steven Seagal. Okay, maybe he’s better than Steven Seagal.

  • Yanny

    I totally abhor watching Chinese films dubbed into English. Most of the time it feels like a sacrilege, as up to 50% of the flavor and meaning can be lost. There’s a lot of history and subtlety in Chinese words and lines, which can be totally lost in translation or by inept delivery. Half of acting is in the delivery of lines; you really can’t tell how well an actor acts if he is dubbed and thus robbed of his delivery. Chinese-language films can differ greatly in cultural depth depending on whether they’re produced in the mainland, in HK, in Taiwan or in Singapore. Let alone if they’re dubbed into another language!!

  • Yanny, I agree with you. Much of the problem is translating the dialog so that the dubbing actors can say the translated dialog to match the lip movements of the original actors. Many of us are accustomed to the stilted delivery that results. Actually, even in non-foreign films, ADR (automated dialogue replacement) requires actors to replicate delivery of lines in non-ideal circumstances.

    One similar notion I would like to point out is that sub-titling may be better, but it’s not ideal. Sometimes cultural differences make translation difficult. Is it better to translate exactly, or let the translators do their own interpretation of the dialogue for audiences?