Thursday, June 05, 2014

King Hu at BAM: Painted Skin

Somehow, they are both based on Pu Songling’s short stories, but you would be hard pressed to find many similarities between King Hu’s final film and the smash hit Chinese cinema and television franchise of the same name. At least the casting made sense when Zhou Xun succeeded Joey Wong as the supernatural femme fatale with the detachable face. A foolish scholar will get more than he bargained for when he takes in a mystery woman in King Hu’s Painted Skin, which screens during BAM Cinématek’s retrospective, All Hail the King: the Films of King Hu.

Wang Hsi-tzu realizes he might have stayed out too late drinking when he starts seeing strange spectral visions on his way home. Nevertheless, he gets a sudden dose of courage when he encounters You Feng. Moved by claims she was badly abused by her husband’s first wife, Wang takes her into his household, much to the annoyance of his own wife. He may have yet to pass an imperial exam, but even Wang quickly realizes there is something a little off about You.

When confronted by a charm provided by two Taoist priests, You admits she is a ghost, trapped between worlds and held in thrall to the King of Yin and Yang. Half ghost, half man, the evil king commands a death cult of similarly in-between spirits. To escape his power, You will need more help than Wang can provide, she sets off in the company of the two priests, to find a legendary high priest, living a hermit like existence tending peach trees.

Without question, the first third of Painted is by far the most effective. Hu defty creates an eerie nocturnal atmosphere and a metaphysically scary villain. In contrast, the subsequent fantasy quest sequences feel more conventional, even though he nicely conveys the notion that the conflict is joined on both physical and spiritual levels. Still, the conclusion is quite redemptive, in every sense.

Granted, Wong does not have the strongest reputation as a thesp, but when it comes to looking like a doe-eyed lost little girl, she was tough to beat. Likewise, Wang is a great role for Adam Cheng, giving him license to ham it up in two directions. Even though his scenes do not have as much pop, there is no denying Sammo Hung has the appropriate heft, so to speak, for the high priest.

Painted Skin is a relatively minor entry in Hu’s filmography, but it is still a consistently entertaining supernatural wuxia fusion. Indeed, many of his prestigious filmmaker colleagues have ended their careers on weaker codas. Recommended as a ghostly outing in its own right and indispensible for BAM’s retrospective, Painted Skin screens this coming Tuesday (6/10) in Brooklyn, as part of the perfectly named All Hail the King film series.