Painted Skin (King Hu, 1993)
Mandarin Title: Hua pi zhi yinyang fawang
King Hu has made great films in his lifetime; these films defined the wuxia genre; films like Come Drink With Me (1966), Dragon Inn (1966), and his masterpiece A Touch of Zen (1969). Aside from forwarding the thematics and stylistics of the genre, his films and stature influenced many directors. Ang Lee's bamboo fight scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) was borrowed from a similar scene in A Touch of Zen. Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers (2004) evokes a similar intrepid adventurism as many of Hu's wuxia features. Tsui Hark, one of the defining directors of 80's and 90's Hong Kong cinema acknowledges Hu as a direct influence to his artistry. He even tapped Hu to co-direct Swordsman (1990), but after discovering a difference in working habits (Hu was too slow), removed him from the directing team while keeping his name, out of respect, in the credits.
Hu's final film, Painted Skin, surfaced in the early 90's. It wasn't greeted with critical laurels. It seems that Hu, unlike Tsui who was reactive to the burgeoning influence of the globalization of American cinmea, wasn't evolving as a director. Painted Skin, although quite similar in the sub-genre revitalized by Tsui's A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), is bothered with a bumpy pace and a narrative slightness. However, to completely dismiss Painted Skin as a failure in Hu's filmography is completely out of place. True, the film is probably the weakest in Hu's works, but it's something of a last hurrah to the classy, the lyrical, the intrepid filmmaking that defined 60's and 70's Hong Kong cinema. Moreover, Hu's visuals is as tight as before --- there's a grandiose and graceful quality to his filmmaking that seemingly transcends the genre's limitations; his editing is as quick and crisp as ever --- the film actually utilizes very little extraneous effects (wire-fu, pre-CGI visual effects) as Hu's editing adequately fills in the illusion of action and flash.
Painted Skin concerns the plight of You Feng (Joey Wong), a ghost who is prevented from descending to hell to be reincarnated into the mortal world by the Yin-Yang king. She escapes to earth, where she blindly meets a scholar-philanderer Wang (Adam Cheng). Wang adopts You Feng, unaware that she is a ghost. When he sees her repainting her face, he seeks the help of two Taoist monks to try to remove the spirit from his home. You Feng then travels with the two Taoist monks to seek the help of the High Priest (Sammo Hung) to defeat the Yin-Yank king and restore the natural flow of spirits and the process of reincarnation.
The problem with Painted Skin is that there is an inherent absence of rapport in between its characters. The motivations behind their decisions are skewed; their rationale for being seems to be a result of predestination rather than human appropriation. You Feng's plight seems to be too unexplainedly great, especially for the Yin-Yang king to get worried over for. Even the High Priest's reasons for helping You Feng is individualistic instead of heroic; the same can be said for the lecherous scholar who claims You Feng as his concubine rather than an object for good deeds. Hu's world seems to have transformed from being a battleground of virtues and camaraderie into a stage of blurred lines between good and evil.
There is not one character that represents virtue, not even human imperfection. Instead, Hu forwards a scenario wherein confusion abound in terms of the characters' station in the moral ladder. Facades are put into a thematic spotlight. You Feng wears a painted human face to lure help; The High Priest pretends to be a lowly peasant to hide his godly powers; The yin-yang king has invisibility powers, represents an orderly rebellious bureaucratic government against the natural flow, and possesses human bodies to pave the way for his plans. In a way, the slightly told battle against a single evil is revoked of its benevolent ideals by the fact that there is nothing to grab, nothing to take in, with no character to represent the human plight, as opposed to Hu's more successful films --- probably the reason why Painted Skin is seen as a failure rather than a mild addition to Hu's filmography.