Painted Skin
Hong Kong 1992
Directed by King Hu.

King Hu directs this tale about a woman who is trying to escape from the king of Yin/Yang with the help of a group of Taoist priests. She has a beautiful face, except when she takes it off and hangs it on the back of her chair.

King Hu returns to Pu Songling's Liaozhai twenty years after he explored the same territory in A Touch of Zen. But much has changed in supernatural cinema since then. Tsui Hark's A Chinese Ghost Story and its sequels have come and gone, leaving in their wake a new, hyped-up style filled with ravishing colors, inventive special effects, and larger than life heroes who fight for their ghostly maidens with a kinetic kung-fu action style. They influenced almost every film to come.

King Hu, though, remains largely unmoved. His style, the same as he has always used. The trouble is, it looked a little...dated, even when it came out. In fact it seems the only lesson Hu picked up from Tsui Hark was to cast Joey Wong as the demoness, as if we haven't seen her play this part enough times already.

Still, King Hu's retro tale of ghosts and demons is not without a charm, energy, and excitement of its own. It begins as all Pu Songling inspired films do, with a scholar, this time named Hsi Tsu, having a bad day. The wine going to his head, he steps out to get some night air, and comes across a dog meat vendor (Wu Ma). He orders a bowl of dog meat noodles, then the vendor, cart, and all disappears. Tsu wanders down an alley, and runs smack into You Feng (Joey Wong). She looks confused and distressed, so he does what anyone would do in that situation, he takes her home and asks his wife if he can keep her.

Everything proceeds according to the Liaozhai tale The Painted Skin, at least up to a point. Then, the film takes a turn. King Hu followed a similar approach with A Touch of Zen, beginning like the Pu Songling tale The Magnanimous Girl then veering off into sophisticated political and religious realms. Here, he skips the political and religious sophistication and dives straight for weird.

You see, You Feng ran away from the King of Yin/Yang, who has his own empire, which resides on the border between life and death. He steals the souls of the dead before they can travel to the underworld, and there holds court and rules with an iron fist, and an iron mask. In fact all the denizens of the Yin/Yang border world wear masks, together they look like a Greek chorus. They run around in fog a lot, dance with torches, and in general cavort and have as good a time as one can have on an empty, fog-bound set. It's not long before the King decides to go to the world of the living to bring You Feng back.

Back on planet earth, the scholar enlists the help of some Taoist priests to exorcise You Feng from his home. In indignation, she leaves, and then SHE enlists the help of the same Taoist priests to protect her from the King of Yin/Yang. They decide the only one that can help is the high priest (Sammo Hung), who they eventually find disguised as a peach farmer. The King of Yin/Yang descends to earth and possesses the scholar. His first act as a human is to rape the scholars wife, but alas, he has too much Yin in him to get his Yang to work properly.

The final hour of this ninety minute film is basically chase, combat, chase, combat, as the Taoist priests close in on the King of Yin/Yang, and vice-versa. Along the way they drop by Yama, King of the Underworld to make sure he doesn't mind if they dispatch the Yin/Yang King. And Lam Ching-Ying abruptly drops in as the Purple Swordsman, kills a few of the minions of the Yin/Yang world, and leaves before you can say, "Hey, isn't that Lam Ching-Ying?"

King Hu stages the fight scenes beautifully, and where other directors may need to resort to expensive special effects, Hu is able to use editing and suggestion to create the same effect. The result is a bit slower paced than audiences had come to expect by 1992, but is nonetheless technically impressive.

One difficulty with the film is that there are no heroes. Joey Wong is a demoness, and really has no real charm here. Sammo Hung is the high Taoist priest, but instead of being a righteous man, he joins the battle because he believes that he might gain some special powers by defeating the King of Yin/Yang. The scholar is just after some sex, and although not a mean person, he spends most of the film possessed by the villain. In this world, there is no one to root for. Good is evil, evil becomes good.

This weakness in turn reveals the theme of the film, which in comparison to all other Pu Songling inspired films, touches closest on the themes found in the Liaozhai. King Hu is exploring here the boundaries between life and death, and the thin border between these two worlds. He also investigates the nature of identity and the trustworthiness of the senses. No one is who they seems to be, everyone teeters on the borderline between to opposites. At its center, the villain is neither Yin nor Yang, but both. Sammo Hung is an upright Taoist, but is also greedy for power. The scholar is both innocent, and, once possessed, cruelly evil. Many of the characters are able to move between worlds with ease. You Feng herself becomes symbolic of this border-crossing mentality: on the outside, she is beautiful, underneath, she is a hideous demon, but inside, she is kind and good natured. A mask within a mask. The King of Yin/Yang, at first wears a mask, then later wears the scholar's face.

Painted Skin is often dismissed as a lesser work from director King Hu, which it undoubtably is. But what many critics fail to mention is that even his lesser work contains much that is interesting and entertaining. He's got weird going for him here, too, and that helps. Sammo Hung, Wu Ma, and Lam Ching-Ying all give uncharacteristic performances that are well worth watching. Under director Hu, actors are deeply immersed in the narrative, and seeing a star as big as Sammo Hung is not jarring at all, rather you might at first wonder if it is indeed him, and later you may forget that it is. I can honestly say this film is unlike any other Hong Kong film I've seen. That fact alone, makes this one highly recommended.

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on April 06, 2004.

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