Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Cinema File #90: "Painted Skin: The Resurrection" Review

As a contributor to the website Picture Show Pundits, I am one of a select few members of a small group of amateur film critics who gets to vote for nominations for that site's annual Silver Cine Awards. This is the first year I've been able to participate in this process, so I didn't even know what categories I'd be picking from apart from the average Oscar-ish ones, but I didn't have too much trouble until I got to the Best Foreign Language Film spot. I don't watch a lot of foreign films outside of anime, and since there was already a Best Animated Film category, I felt it would probably be good to watch at least one live action foreign movie that didn't have a Kamen Rider or a Super Sentai team in it before I voted. Luckily, I just happened to have one in my queue, and now that I've watched Painted Skin: The Resurrection, I'm happy to say it would probably get my vote even if it wasn't by default.

Painted Skin: The Resurrection is the sequel to a 2008 film called simply Painted Skin, which I have never seen though now plan to as soon as I can. You don't need to see the first one to enjoy the second, and from what I gather from cursory online research, the only connection between the two films seems to be the cast and the fact that both draw from Chinese mythology for their inspiration. Its sort of like A Fish Called Wanda and Fierce Creatures I guess, except the second movie in this series doesn't suck balls this time. The story follows a demon and her avian familiar who literally steal the hearts of men to maintain their own human appearance, who find themselves manipulating the lives of a warrior princess and her former, tortured lover as two nations stand at the brink of war. I don't know enough about Chinese myth to pick on the details or know what is and isn't faithful to the source material, but just as a fan of action fantasy movies, this one hit pretty much every note I was looking for, and did so almost perfectly.

The title of the film refers to the way in which demons assume human form, akin to painting ones face as they choose, and much of the story revolves around the nature of identity and appearance, who we are, how we're perceived and how we perceive ourselves, and what we would be willing to give up of ourselves in order to get what we want. In many ways it feels like a classic Western fairy tale in an Eastern setting with shades of Cinderalla, Snow White, and even the Disney version of The Little Mermaid, with the princess here seeking the aid of magic to change herself to be with the man she loves, in this case with the help of a witch-like figure with her own agenda. That's not to say the story isn't original in its own right, just that it is safely in keeping with the kind of well-worn fantasy tropes you'd be used to, even if you're not used to the cultural trappings of a movie infused with the sensibilities of Chinese folklore.

I'm reminded of Snow White and the Huntsmen, and how there was this very unsubtle and last minute attempt to make the villainous Queen something other than one dimensionally evil, with a quick flashback to her childhood meant to convey what should have been strongly emphasized throughout the entire film. The lack of depth to the characters was probably my biggest problem with that movie, and as I watched Painted Skin actually explore its villains as deeply and thoroughly as the heroes, I couldn't help but re-evaluate my relative praise for what I'd previously considered the last half-way decent live action fairy tale I'd seen. The demonic Xiaowei begins as a self serving character doing what ever she has to to survive, but as we learn more about her history and motives, she becomes perhaps even more complex and well-rounded than any of the heroes. There's little else I can say on this other than the fact that in the first ten minutes of the movie her character rips out a human heart and eats it, and in the last ten, the drama of the climax hinges on our hope that she be rescued in the nick of time, and it pays off.

The other characters are a bit stock but all have their moments to shine. The handsome prince analog who briefly falls under the witch's spell is appropriately bad ass, able to shoot an arrow through the hole in a coin while blindfolded, and the consequences of this ability come into play in a very big and satisfying way towards the end. In terms of sheer badassery, he's almost overshadowed by his princess, who suffers from a disfiguring scar that she hides under a mask that matches her armor and gold hilted sword. A bumbling comic relief demon hunter and his burgeoning romance with the demon's bird-like minion was really sweet and leaves the movie with a somber, though ultimately hopeful note, but I wish there had been more time devoted to it, even with the 2 hour + running time. The only element truly given short shrift I'd say is the invading army, which apart from a nice twist that calls back the first few minutes of the film seems like it could have been fleshed out a lot more.

I've reviewed some very disappointing movies lately, some that I very much thought I would love, and I'm glad I finally have one I can passionately recommend again. Painted Skin: The Resurrection is a great film for any fan of fantasy, romance, action, or adventure. Some reviews I've read have criticized some of the CGI, but aside from a grizzly that comes off as a bit chintzy, I found the special effects to be very well done, with any obvious deficiencies shot in such a way as to minimize any glaring problems that might take you out of the movie. If you're like me and not a huge fan of foreign films, this one is very accessible and easy to become immersed in, and as long as you can stand the subtitles and the length, its easily worth spending the time and the effort.

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