HK Summer Hits, 2012 – Painted Skin 2: The Resurrection and The Four (Wu Ershan, 2012)

| January 28, 2013

HK Summer Hits, 2012  (Painted Skin 2: The Resurrection and The Four) By Jim Feast

I’ve always been skeptical of the view that at some deep level the mythologies of all cultures are interchangeable. While this belief may be useful for the type of comparisons carried out by writers such as Claude Levy-Strauss and Joseph Campbell, they ignore the fact that older civilizations have some integration of perspective, bundling together views on nature, female/male relations, the place of art, and so on that are lost if one of its myth is pulled from context and stripped of its integrality.

One such broad contrast, relevant to this discussion, is that noted by Luce Irigaray in Sexes and Genealogies, where she writes, when she is contrasting the way, according to Girard, Western religions are centered on sacrifice, “In certain Eastern countries, ritual and individual prayer consists in bodily exercise that is either personal or collective.” She cites such Chinese practices as “tai chi, karate, song, dance,” and continues, “there is no sacrifice of the other, and yet there is a much richer spirituality as well as a more fertile eroticism.”

These lofty thoughts are prompted by having seen, this summer in Guangzhou, two of the top three HK films of the season. These were Painted Skin 2: The Resurrection (director: Wuershan) and The Four (director: Gordon Chan). The third top film, which we didn’t see, was The Silent War.

Painted Skin 2, which opened in New York in the week of August 18, was the more wildly popular of the two in China while being the one that draws from the deepest sources of Chinese lore, being based on the Qing dynasty novel Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio.  A fox demon (Zhou Yun), who has taken female form, can only survive by eating human hearts. If, though, she can get someone to freely give his or her heart to her, she can become human, living on in the body of the sacrificer. Of course, she loses immortality, but she will be able to touch, smell, taste and experience other things that she cannot in her present incarnation.  The fox then gets involved in a love triangle whose other female vertex is a general, Zhao Wei, whose own peculiarity is that half her face has been clawed away by a bear so it must be covered with a metal mask. Both vie for the heart of Chen Kun, head of the palace bodyguards.

À la a Shaksperean comedy, there is a parallel, lower order, humorous romance, this one between an itinerant monster hunter, Feng Shaofeng,  and a sparrow demon turned woman, Yang Mi, who is so insignificant that, in one of the richest comic scenes, Feng looks in vain through a gigantic, hoary encyclopedia of demons (compiled by his great grandfather) for a reference to her species.

In this film, in sharp distinction from the normative Hollywood product, the spectacular special effects — such as in a scene when Zhou, prowling through the night market, sees only the skeletal outlines of human bodies and faces contrasted to the vivid, red, pumping hearts which are her sustenance – are matched in intensity by thoughtful, sensitive characterization.

Moreover, in another distinction from HW, the love triangle distinctly registers an undercover current of homosexual desire between the two women, especially in the sensuous, lush scenes where the two women are bathing together. And these occur in plenty.  In fact, the movie becomes something of a tour de force duel between the female leads. Zhao and Zhou are two of the Four Dans, a group of young female stars that appeared in Chinese cinema around the same time. For a long time, Zhao Wei was the most famous of the group, and was considered the peer actress, at least until this film, in which Zhou has is surpassingly subtle, playful and devious in what is, granted, the meatier role.

American films occasionally give attention to characters, such as Robocop, who combine human and machine or to those bloodsuckers who have bat-like traits. But the latter have no real interest in the bats whereas Chinese films where animals have become humans, such as Green Snake, inevitably endow the heroes with some of the traits of the beast. I think this goes back to the civilizational perspective noted earlier, with the Chinese connection to the natural world being distinctive from the American one.  In any case, think of the feat, performed by Yang Mei, who, at turns, mimes the traits of a love-struck school girl, a bird, and a heart-eating demon. It sounds ludicrous stated that way, but makes for an astounding performance. So, add the complex while emotionally rich acting to the constant, over-the-top visual inventiveness and you have a satisfying effort. And all this in 3D.

Yet, I’m guessing that to savor it fully, a U.S. spectator will have to be willing to latch on to a distinctive, non-Western outlook and mythology. This is hardly the case for the other hit, The Four. It did so well that parts 2 and 3 are already in production! To my mind, The Four represents a channeling of Hollywood’s X Men and Fantastic Four sagas, given a distinctive wu xia flavor. As an éminence grise, instead of Professor X, we have Anthony Wong, who directs a team of uniquely endowed swordsmen, including a genius blacksmith, a debt collector who can, literally, smell out the location of anyone. Then there’s a wheelchair, like the one Professor X has, but this time not for the leader but for psychic Crystal Liu, who can read minds and the future. There’s even an incredible Hulk type, Deng Chao, who turns into a raging, clawed beast when he loses his cool. They are all tracking a supervillain who, as part of his plot to dethrone the emperor, is flooding the city with counterfeit coins.

I should enlarge on “they,” in that along with this secret task force being on the case, there is also the constabulary as well as a newly enlisted group of female Praetorian guards. To my mind, the multiplication of competing law enforcers, which is common enough in HK films, as in, for instance, Jackie Chan’s Project A, 1 and 2, is due to the perennially contested sovereignty of the city state, which while quasi-independent has always been beholden to an imperial power, whether the UK or China, and so displayed competing lines of authority. Here this mix is played to advantage in one of the opening scenes when, hoping to intercept one of the counterfeiters at the Drunken Moon Inn, everyone converges: the super martial artists, the female cops, the constabulary, even a lone wolf debt collector, most in disguises, for an incredible set piece of  subterfuge, chase and combat. Indeed, this spectacular scene nearly trumps the whole movie, not unlike what happens with the restaurant battle at the beginning of Woo’s Hard Boiled, outshining (at least for spectacle) what happens in the rest of the film.

Soon enough a love triangle develops involving Beast Man Deng with the good girl in her wheelchair, Liu, and the dark lady, head of the female police squad. Add to that the induction of both the debt collector and Deng into Wong’s elite group, and the viewer has to say: There’s an awful lot of plot here. So much so that, unhappily, there is little of the character development or interaction found in Skin.

For better or worse, Four is an attempt to rework martial arts conventions to align them with the comic book protocols now reigning in American cinema. It could be speculated that Skin is so emotionally and visually satisfying as compared to the Four, which is only visually rich because the Four draws so heavily from a Hollywood genre style, which is itself inherently limited. As with the comic book films of America, the Four has to end with a big battle against the super villain, and this battle finishes with the heroes victorious. Maybe, too, the excessive number of plotlines in this film arises from trying to cobble together pieces from disparate national traditions. The Painted Skin, by contrast, ends tragically, allowing the characters to follow their fate naturally, squeezing all the nectar from (what for Americans) is a very exotic fruit.

Painted Skin 2: The Resurrection and The Four