In these days of movie titles like The Raid: Redemption, it didn’t even occur to me that Painted Skin: The Resurrection might be a sequel. Turns out, it is, albeit one that stands on its own: while Zhou Xun reprises her role as fox demon Xiaowei from 2008’s Painted Skin, the other returning actors seem to be playing new characters in a new story with little or no narrative connection to the earlier film.
That story centers on a love triangle involving the aforementioned demon and two humans, Princess Jing (Zhao Wei) and General Huo Xin (Chen Kun). The General was once a member of the princess’s royal guard, but upon his refusal to voice his affection for her, she flees into the wilderness where a giant CGI bear scars her face. The subsequent arrival of the fox demon enables a body switch that creates more problems than it solves. The love triangle is further complicated by a promised marriage to a scary-looking clan of wolf-oriented folks, and offset by a charming comic B story featuring flirtation between a cute bird demon (Yang Mi) and a bumbling demon hunter (Feng Shaofeng). Within the fantastical setup, the film downplays action in favor of romance, which is enjoyable enough as camp and sometimes even breaks into actual emotion.
Wuershan, taking over directing duties from Gordon Chan, aims to bring ancient Chinese supernatural stories into the digital age, and he does so with a vengeance. The film opens with an elaborate but cheesy CGI sequence in which Xiaowei escapes from her imprisonment in ice, but even the live-action footage has been scrubbed to such a high sheen that for several minutes I thought the whole movie was going to be animated. The fight scenes are rendered with de rigueur speed changes, and overall Wuershan seems to prefer slow motion — all the better to revel in the sight of long hair sailing in the wind, bodies floating underwater, and enough whirling flower petals to satisfy even Ridley Scott. Some of the film’s more interesting visual ideas, however, especially its sets and costumes, suffocate amid the profusion of video game-style effects.
Still, any movie in which a bunch of good-looking people pine for each other, trade bodies, and occasionally fight can’t be all bad. A box-office smash in mainland China, where it recently became the highest grossing domestic film of all time, Painted Skin: The Resurrection is an outsized movie, and I’m sure the poorly rendered DVD screener I watched doesn’t do it justice (although its glossy digital fakeness may be more glaring when writ large). Despite its lugubrious pace, the supernatural story actually makes sense and will be accessible to American audiences. Whether or not it will resonate with them is far less certain.