Those following the production of Painted Skin would be forgiven for being cautious - the first trailer didn't arrive until days before the official release date. A sign perhaps, that the makers of Painted Skin were trying to hide us from something, concealing the cracks of creativity, so to speak. A world of hurt for Donnie Yen fans the world over. He does, after all, keep his shirt on for the entire duration of this movie.
However (and it's an important however), he also sports incredibly long hair in this one. It's all about balance, and Painted Skin isn't about to go against the laws of action cinema now is it? Leading his force of warriors home from battle, General Wang (Chen Kun) saves a beautiful girl called Mei-ling (Zhou Xun, not to be confused with Zhao Wei) from a team of bandits. They take her back to their village and all of a sudden, death comes-a-calling.
None of the villagers suspect the new girl on the block. I mean really, it's not like she could possibly be a demon. She's far too cute. She is a demon, technically, just not the demon. A devilish fiend called Yi is killing the innocent villagers, but hey, that's okay, because he's only doing it out of love for Mei-ling. Sadly for him, Mei-ling is falling in love with General Wang. Did somebody say this was a Donnie Yen picture?
General Wang's wife (Zhao Wei, not to be confused with Zhou Xun) is suspicious from the start, probably because she suspects Mei-ling of trying to steal her hubby, and possibly because she suspects the demon of wanting to rip her heart out. Erlong (that would be Donnie then) attempts to uncover the truth with the aid of another cute young thing (Sun Li), who also happens to be a demon hunter. Erlong (that would be Donnie again) used to date Pei-rong (Zhao Wei, not to be confused with Zhou Xun), but she dumped him for General Wang (Chen Chun). You see, the exorcist/demon hunter (Sun Li) may have feelings for Erlong (yup, Donnie Yen), but she pretends that she's not interested, even though we all know that she definitely would. It's Donnie Yen for Christ's sake.
Confused? It's actually a lot less complicated than it sounds. This is lightweight entertainment that comes on like a cross between The Bride With White Hair and An Empress And The Warriors, except it's not nearly as good as either of them. Painted Skin feels rushed from start to finish, as if the filmmakers didn't really know what was going to work so they just threw everything at the screen. Some of it sticks, a lot of it doesn't, but for some reason the completed picture isn't the incoherent mess it deserves to be. Painted Skin entertains on so many levels, when it really shouldn't work at all, and though it's easy to criticise the movie for being a pale imitation of vastly superior offerings, I found myself glued to the screen in spite of myself. I’m so weak.
The acting is over the top, the effects range from workable to just plain daft (the Donnie Yen/Qi Yuwu rooftop chase is laughable yet thankfully fleeting), characters behave in unnatural ways just to service the script, and the film never truly convinces on any level. Unless you count fun as a level. It's hard to care about the characters when they behave in such irrational ways; attraction and loathing is lost in the haste of it all. Even the editing feels rushed, as one scene bleeds effortlessly into the next, with character development and performance falling by the wayside as a result. The martial arts sequences are fine for what they are, it is a Donnie Yen movie after all, but they also feel as though they belong in a different picture.
Painted Skin won't stand the test of time, but there is fun to be had along the way. Giddy excess works in the film's favour for once, but there's little to recommend beneath the shallow make-up. Painted Skin is the movie equivalent of pulling someone on a Friday night, taking them home, and waking up alongside Marilyn Manson. You have been warned. AW