One of my favourite Chinese fantasy films is Painted Skin. I liked it so much, I decided to buy a hard copy, only to find (to my frustration) that it is being sold (scratch that, mis-sold) as a martial arts action film, with equally misleading cover art and blurb. As a result, it has no chance of attracting the attention of the fantasy enthusiast it was made for, who will absolutely love it…
‘The battle for empire’, my foot! You can see how clearly mis-marketed the film is in the West (top left). For a comparison, see the original Chinese poster (bottom left).
The only thing they have in common is Donnie Yen and his sword.
All the more I feel the need to share and recommend this worthwhile picture, as it gives us an interesting glimpse of the rich world of Chinese mythology.
What Painted Skin Is…
Painted Skin is based on the 18th century short novel by the same title, written by Pu Songling. It’s a part of the Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio compilation. The novel tells a story of scholar Wang, who one day finds a mysterious young woman on a highway and – struck by her beauty – takes her home with him. The girl, however, turns out to be a demon in human skin.
It is a tale of temptation and karma. The film, being quite loosely based on the book, presents a much more complicated version of the story.
The young general, Wang Sheng, rescues a girl, Xiao Wei, during a raid on the nomadic Xiongnu camp. He takes her home, obedient to some unseen force, unaware Xiao Wei is a demon and he has just let the fox into the chicken coop. Xiao Wei has a sort of servant, in the form of a lizard spirit, Xiao Yi, who brings her the fresh human hearts she needs. In order to make these take-away deliveries, Xiao Yi goes on a killing spree, leaving a bloody trail behind, which in turn gets the city in a state of uproar, providing a lot of work for Wang Sheng.
The presence of the demon brings a female demon hunter, Xia Bing, to the town. There’s also a troubled military soul played by Donnie Yen (yes, yes, the blind monk from Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and a lot more to it…
Now, I’d like to keep this spoiler-free as much as possible, so I’m not going to elaborate on the details. I want, however, to take this chance and make a few comments on Chinese demonology, which inspired the film.
The world of Chinese myths and legends is filled to the brim with all sorts of supernatural beings. The legend of Bai Ze, for example, informs us about precisely 11,520 kinds of supernatural creatures. Among those, there’s a strong representation of demons, divided by forms and origins. The one we have a special interest in here is huli jing, a fox spirit, or nine-tailed fox. Now, the motif of the nine-tailed fox is spread through all the Far East – it is known also as kumiho (gumiho) in Korea, and kitsune in Japan. Being a part of folklore, it has some common characteristics across regions and time but there are also inconsistencies. Stories seem to agree as to huli jing‘s magical and shape shifting abilities. Often it is said to have a celestial origin. Some say it feeds on the energy of the sun or moon, yet others say they feed on human flesh.
As one of the results of mixing and matching all the possible myth elements, there is one quite popular version of the story, in which the fox shape shifts into a beautiful woman, who seduces men in order to feast on their hearts or livers. This is exactly the case with Xiao Wei, who needs human hearts to keep her human skin looking young. The lizard spirit mentions that, “The uglier the human heart, the more ultimate in black magic”, so the non-voluntary donors are preferably ugly or bad. The demon huntress, Xia Bing, has a part of the fox tail, directing to the ‘Beautiful Fox from the Sky’ (again, allusion to the celestial origin of the fox). The tail flashes and hums when in the radius of Xiao Wei. Hardly anyone believes the huntress, however, because Xiao Wei is charming and extremely attractive in an almost supernatural way.
Usually beauty makes one rather stand out, not in this case though. Thanks to her looks, the fox demon is able to hide in a plain sight, to blend in and provoke an assumption of her innocence and goodness. In the novel we read, “Wang was shocked by the monk’s words and started to have doubts about the girl. But then he thought: How can a beautiful girl be a ghost?”
See, there’s the problem.
Almost the same words come from Wang Sheng in the film adaptation, “I’m not so stupid as to keep a demon in my house…” But he’s easily overlooked a pretty girl. He’s very rational and reasonable, he doesn’t believe in demons. He believes in pretty girls, though. And that’s all the faith Xiao Wei needs. Of course, as a huli jing she also has the gift of persuasion, the kind that leaves the victim quite stupefied, although it apparently doesn’t work on everyone. In case persuasion was not enough, the fox has another trick in her arsenal, similar to what was often ascribed to a character of succubus… The, ahem, visions of paradise.
Progressing slowly to the end of my ramblings, I also wholeheartedly recommend the sequel, Painted Skin: The Resurrection (the British-released title is Demon Hunter: The Resurrection… seriously, I won’t even comment on that). There aren’t many films out there with a sequel equally good, or even better then the original, but Painted Skin is definitely one of them. It offers a whole new story, new moral and existential problems, new charm, and new spooky elements, all blended seamlessly with the first part. The Resurrection is visually richer and has yet darker characters with the demonic theme further developed. I’d also like to draw your attention to the really good soundtrack composed by Ikuro Fujiwara in the first film, and Katsunori Ishida in the sequel.
All in all, while obviously being a fan of the film itself, I’d like to encourage every darkly-inclined person out there to explore the non-Western dark fantasy works, because, as we all know, there are many shades of black, and many still to be discovered!
A geek and gamer with a background in Cultural Anthropology, Lena loves all things that go bump in the night; apprentice of vampire lore, fan of cyberpunk, enthusiast of dark fantasy. Lena is blending in with the mortals working for an interior designer.