As part of my research for my forthcoming book on East Asian Gothic Cinema, I have been watching as many mainland Chinese films as I can. Of these, Painted Skin is one of my favourites. Directed by the prolific Gordon Chan, Painted Skin is based upon a short story by Pu Songling in Strange Tales from A Chinese Studio about a beautiful sixteen year old woman who turns out to be a monstrous demon, whose abject interior is concealed through the use of a carefully painted human pelt.
In Chan’s film, the supernatural elements are downplayed as the dominant communist ideology of China allows no space for what are seen to be archaic beliefs at odds with a secular society. By replacing the monstrosity of the original folktale with a melodramatic love story between a human and a fox spirit, known as Huli Jing in China, Painted Skin domesticates the monstrous other and in the process foregrounds filial loyalty and patriarchal values around appropriate femininity.
In the film, Xiao Wei (Zhou Xun) – a fox spirit – who keeps her beauty and youth through a diet of human hearts, is taken into the household of General Wang Sheng (Chen Kun) and becomes obsessed with him, desiring to take the place of his much-loved wife in both his bed and his household. However as in the original story, her disguise is discovered and she is cast out from the household. But rather than being killed and trapped by the forces of good, she sacrifices herself in the name of true love in order to bring both Wang and his wife, Peirong (Zhao Wei/Vicky Zhao) back to life.
Like many Chinese films, the narrative is considerably more complex than this short synopsis suggests. There is an inexperienced demon hunter, Xia Bing (Betty Sun), who joins forces with Pang Yong (the ever present Donnie Yen), an ex-general in Wang’s army who is in love with Peirong, to vanquish Xiao Wei. In addition, there is Xiao Wei’s chameleon companion, Xiaoyi (Qi Yuwu), who serves his mistress by bringing her hearts and tries to prevent her sacrificing her humanity for Wang.
Despite the presence of Donnie Yen, Painted Skin is not a typical martial arts fantasy with fight scenes few and far between. Rather it focuses in on female subjects, who attempt to escape from predefined, constraining stereotypes of womanhood through agency and activity. However such agency and activity is limited, and in the end both Peirong and Xiao Wei must conform to the age old archetype of the self-sacrificing woman: an archetype which is not limited to East Asian cinema but can also be found in Western cinema. Yet, it is the performances of Zhao Wei and Zhou Xun that make Painted Skin so compelling and an engrossing watch. As anti-feminist as the ending might at first glance seem to be, the image of Xiao Wei confined to eternal life in her original form as a white fox lingers in the memory encapsulating her inability to be truly human suggests the difference between the demonic and the human is not so clearly defined as in the day when the original story was written. Further, beauty, we are told, is only skin deep. A necessary reminder in an age of selfies which promotes unrealistic images of beauty and plastic surgery which offers us the tools to become as unrealistic as those images that we are perpetually bombarded with.
The best translation of Strange Stories of a Chinese Studio, is in my opinion, the Penguin Classics version, which is translated by John Minford (2008).
East Asian Culture has many variations on the fox spirit, including the Japanese Kitsune and the Korean, Gumiho.
This review is subject to copyright. I am happy for it to be shared but please do not cite without permission from me as portions of this will appear in my forthcoming book.