A vaporous, watered-down frappe of a fantasy epic, director Wuershan’s bafflingly successful Painted Skin: The Resurrection finally arrives on North American shores after toppling box-office records in mainland China this past June. Its domestic buzz, alas, is unwarranted: Though it clearly intends to be a galvanizing crossover success in the vein of Zhang Yimou’s similarly airy martial-arts import Hero, it shares much more in common aesthetically with John R. Leonetti’s Mortal Kombat: Annihilation—though Leonetti’s effort, admittedly, has the visual edge over Wuershan’s. Special effects don’t count for everything, but the fact that its wall-to-wall CGI mockups look significantly worse than those touted by a 15-year-old direct-to-video sequel to an adaptation of a video game doesn’t bode well for Painted Skin’s chances for finding much success abroad. Did I mention it had a budget of $19 million?
The film opens with a fake-looking CGI bird cracking open fake-looking CGI ice with its badly animated and totally fake-looking CGI beak in order to release Xiaowei (Zhou Xun, always fiddled-with in post so that she retains an Edward Cullen-like glow), who the opening titles helpfully explain is a “fox demon” trapped in a frozen prison for hundreds of years for breaking ancient demon law, or something. For the film’s first, dizzying 15 minutes you could be forgiven for mistaking Painted Skin’s introduction for the opening of an obscure JRPG, and in fact the film’s dismal attempt to animate a large grizzly bear from scratch could quite plausibly have been developed during the era of the Nintendo 64. As Painted Skin labors forward, all of it a slog, its miasma of gaudy digital nonsense only increases in inanity and volume, grating ceaselessly. At 131 minutes, it’s an exhausting experience.
Mind you, Painted Skin does have the distinct advantage of starring three vibrant, distinctive female leads, and the fact that its central drama concerns their interrelated power struggle—even if it defines their struggle at least partially in relation to their male love interests—elevates the material at least a degree or two above the intensely phallic, machismo-driven schlock in which these sorts of fantasy epics more commonly trade. But that’s a distinction of only meager consequence, scarcely worth the tiresome onslaught of badly drawn demons, spells, incantations, and transformations.