A supernatural fantasy film about passion, transformation and beauty. According to demon lore, it takes hundreds of years to attain human form. However, there is a legend that if a pure human heart is freely offered to a demon, it can become a mortal and experience true life.
From the breathtaking opening sequence, when the peck of a small bird on a glacial prison frees the trapped female form of a fox demon, Wuershan’s sequel to the 2008 hit is never less than a spectacular visual treat. But the mythical story of a love affair between mortal men and the alluring ladies of the netherworld, told and retold for centuries – and at least four times on film – is often confusing and uninvolving.
Converted to 3D in post-production with typically mixed results, the director’s sophomore film is no less convoluted and cacophonous than his first, the headache-inducing The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman. But Painted Skin 2: The Resurrection’s benefits from the spacious vistas of its Tibetan location, a blessing that allows the camera of cinematographer Yue-Tai Huang to find occasional calm stillness.
That said, a spectacularly colour-saturated battle sequence, frantic splash of wire-based stuntwork or breathy close-up of the romantic leads in a tearful embrace is never too far away. Viewers are never given long to think about the preposterous details of the more fantastical elements of the plot, a decision that ultimately does the unfocussed dramatic arc a disservice.
Imprisoned in ice for violating demonic law by falling in love with a man, Xiaowei (Zhou Xun, reprising her role) is freed by bird spirit Que'r (Mini Yang), only to wander the villages of this ancient land feasting on warm human hearts, so as to keep from reverting to a frozen state. Her curse can only be broken when a heart is offered willingly to her on the occasion of a solar eclipse. Things start to look up for Xiaowei when she befriends Princess Jing (Vicky Zhao), a beauty scarred in a bear attack (the film’s least convincing CGI) yearning for the love of her most senior soldier, the dashing Huo Xin (Aloys Chen, piling on the matinee-idol smoulder), who lives in shame for not having protected her from the savage beast all those years ago.
All this is taking place as the army of a ruthless barbarian queen (Tingjia Chen) and her evil grand wizard (Taiwan pop star Fei Xiang, hilariously OTT) are planning a revenge attack for Jing’s failure to marry into the barbarian bloodline. Providing some light relief is a charlatan/demon-hunter (William Feng), whose bumbling charm begins to woo Que’r whilst serving to keep the audience informed of overly-complicated demon lore
The film’s technical prowess aside, Painted Skin 2: The Resurrection is most notable for its strong commitment to a femme-based storyline in a genre that is more often slanted towards alpha-male warrior types. Central to the plotting is the notion that beauty need not only be skin deep, that true love exists beyond the superficial. Physical love between genders is represented as deceitful and staged roughly, but several scenes of unclad, steam-bath tenderness between Xiawei and Jing makes one ponder as to whether the film is a Sapphic paean.
The denouement, whilst reverting to traditional gender-based stereotyping, suggests true love is found in the spiritual realm, where physical form is irrelevant. Beneath the maelstrom of filmmaking wizardry that Wuershan unleashes and despite its tangled, Byzantine plotting, there is some thoughtfulness to be found.