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Ghost Story: Bride with Painted Skin (2016)

Plot: scholar is fascinated with a beautiful girl who might, or might not, be human.

Ghost Story: Bride with Painted Skin (聊齋新編之畫皮新娘) is not, as the garble of an international title would have you believe, a mix between A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), The Bride With White Hair (1993) and Painted Skin (2008). In actuality Ghost Story: Bride with Painted Skin (hereafter Bride with Painted Skin) is, in all likelihood, one of the most faithful adaptations of Painted Skin from the Liaozhai Zhiyi, or Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, from Qing Dynasty writer Pu Songling thus far. Unfortunately it’s not faithfulness to the source material alone that makes or breaks a production. For starters, it’s curated by the Film Bureau so that should have anybody sane running for the nearest cover. Second, while its period costume aspect is probably better realized than it has any right to be, Bride With Painted Skin is killed almost entirely by its woefully amateurish CGI and visual effects. It makes Mural (2011) and The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia (2017) look like works of art in comparison.

When director Mo Sa-Li was chosen to helm the adaptation it wasn’t his maiden voyage into ghost horror. Earlier that year he had lensed When Pen Ghost Meets Plate Ghost (筆仙撞碟仙) (2016) and thus had the necessary to background for the project. As difficult to believe as it may seem director Mo Sa-Li actually improved after his initial outing. His second feature was the low-key and surprisingly atmospheric Haunted Sisters (2017), a ghost movie in the age-old Chinese tradition starring Zhang Lan-Yi but clearly bankrolled in response to international ghost horror hits as We Are Not Alone (2016) and Verónica (2017). While it is certainly true that Bride with Painted Skin is faithful to its literary counterpart, The Extreme Fox (2013) and Gordon Chan Ka-Seung’s Painted Skin (2008) and Wu Ershan's Painted Skin: The Resurrection (2012) top it by a wide margin.

During one of his nightly strolls in Taiyuan, Wang ZiChun (Feng Han) happens upon a beautiful girl holding a red umbrella (Haeley Chen Jia-Min) on a bridge. She alleges to be a scorned concubine, and feeling equal amounts of attraction and pity for her, Wang invites her into his abode. This unexpected act of kindness which immediately prompts the young woman to seduce him. His nocturnal tryst would have gone unnoticed if it weren’t for his concerned sister Xi Menyan (Xu Qian-Jing). However when Xi comes to find ZiChun he appears possessed with his mistress nowhere to be seen. ZiChun summarily kills her and dons her skin for appearance. The appearance of a new maiden in the Wang court causes a stir among the household and personnel, not in the least to Wang’s barren wife Chen Ying (Abby Yin Guo-Er). Chen fears that with the arrival of a new concubine her Confucian scholar husband Wang Ziyu (Ding Hui-Yu) will pay even less attention to her. Family matriarch old lady Wang (Guo Ya-Fei) already thinks less of her because she’s unable to conceive any offspring. On the market place Wang Ziyu is warned by wandering Taoist priest Dao Zhang Chengweng (Ye Hao) that the beautiful girl is but a skinsuit for a malevolent shape-shifting fox spirit (húli jīng) and that he should prepare accordingly. Wang pays the cleric no heed and returns to the homestead and, after a detour, discovers that the Taoist was correct in his assessment. The Taoist offers him a charm to ward off the fox spirit but it isn’t until several members of the household die violent deaths that the master Taoist and his student launch an exorcism rite to banish the fox spirit from the material realm.

Where Mural (2011) at least tried to go for that vintage A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) blend of genres Bride with Painted Skin has no such aspirations. It doesn’t nearly have the scope of the preceding two Painted Skin adaptations and for the most part has the look of a TV movie. The screenplay from Shang Ya-Li, Wang Wen-Tong, Zhang Xiao-He, and Shen Yao is probably more faithful than a lot of other adaptations, past and present, but trueness to the written word is not everything. Where Bride with Painted Skin falls flat most damningly is that the production values just simply aren’t there. That’s to say, the sets look like sets – and very cheap and obvious ones at that. There aren’t any real stars as such and the cast mostly comprises of ghost horror regulars and talent from director Mo Sa-Li’s stock company. The biggest name (although that is, of course, very relative) is Haeley Chen Jia-Min (陈嘉敏) whose filmography consists almost exclusively of horror and has starred in the two The Haunted Graduation Photo (2017) as well as the two Haunted Dormitory (2017) movies. Jia-Min alone isn’t able to save Bride with Painted Skin from its television movie production values and eye-searing digital effects. It’s bad enough when the same was done more convincingly with better actors and better special effects twenty, sometimes thirty, years earlier. The advent of affordable digital recording has made it easier to shoot movies, but the art of practical – and prosthetic special effects appears to be a rapidly dying art, at least in Asia.

There’s something decidedly Spanish or Filipino about Bride with Painted Skin. It fits all the early gothic horror tropes while it clearly is a Chinese ghost story. The period costumes are all decent enough, but the production value of these so-called webmovies invariably end up looking cheaper than the cheapest of old-fashioned ghost maiden features. Haeley Chen Jia-Min is a worthy successor to Ada Liu Yan, who has since moved on to more respectable projects after Tsui Hark’s beautiful wuxia/science-fiction disaster The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia (2017). As always the bane of any Chinese production are the dreadful digital effects and Bride with Painted Skin is no exception. While failed digital effects are terrible enough on their own, combined with horrible practical effects the outcome is possibly even worse. Whenever Princess Han Yang appears in her skeletal demon form the practical effect is laughably bad. The practical effects in Ghost with Hole (1981) forty-plus years ago were better than this and they couldn't have nearly as much. Whenever the fox spirit is about to strike green lighting appears. It sort of invokes Gerardo de León’s deliciously kitschy The Blood Drinkers (1964) and its superior sequel The Blood Of the Vampire (1966) (Chen Jia-Min is a lot, but she's no Amalia Fuentes). The computer generated effects during the grand finale, especially those during the decisive battle between the Taoist priest and the fox spirit, are pitiful and embarrassing to say the least. The digital effects in Mural (2011) were better than this. South Korean and Indian television series have better CGI effects on average. In fact Asian productions from thirty, forty years ago had better optical - and practical effects than Bride with Painted Skin has today and the sort of digital crimes of humanity it so gratuitously and gladly partakes in.

That Pu Songling and his Liaozhai Zhiyi, or Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, will continue to inspire filmmakers is a given at this point. It has been doing so for many decades, and that will not change. However the state of these adaptations (at least in Mainland China) have seen better days. Hong Kong has produced several classics and sub-classics over the past decades, but if Bride with Painted Skin is to be taken as a signifier than someone needs to rise to the occassion and restore the genre to its former glory. Perhaps it’s folly to expect from the Film Bureau that they be able to rub shoulders with the old masters. They are no, and never will, be Golden Harvest. Bride with Painted Skin has all the individual elements but none of them ever gel together in something that’s more than the sum of its parts. Former Idol singer and television hostess Haeley Chen Jia-Min (who looks somewhat like a Chinese Nicole Ishida, in our opinion) is a decent enough actress within her little niche but she’s no Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia, Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching, or Joey Wong Cho-Yin. She’s certainly a nobody compared to A-listers as Betty Sun Li, Yu Nan, or Ni Ni. Not that everything with Chrissie Chau Sau-Na is immediately better but The Extreme Fox (2013) told roughly the same story in a far more engrossing fashion than this one here. It’s certainly not for a lack of trying but most of these recent wuxia don’t measure up to the classics. Most of these from the Film Bureau, for example, all are amateurish in one of way or the other. Digital film technology has robbed these wuxia of their atmosphere and soul, it seems.

Bride with Painted Skin is a rousing success as far as staying loyal to its literary counterpart, but that alone isn’t the criterion by which its quality is measured. It never aspires to the lofty heights nor the elegant mix of horror, romance, and martial arts of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987); neither does it possess the immense oneiric qualities of The Green Snake (1993), and although it was the subject of some budget it never reaches the epic scope of Mural (2011) either. It finds itself in that weird quandary where it might appeal to completists and fans of the genre, but a general Western audience will find little to nothing to latch on to. Even for those experienced with the genre and its conventions Bride with Painted Skin is a poisoned gift. Like A Chinese Ghost Story (2011) it’s a visually strong reimagining of a classic story from Chinese literature but has little going for it besides those visuals. It never commits to either of its two main genres. As a horror feature it’s almost entirely free of scares, and as a romance it lacks the dramatics and interpersonal chemistry to make much of an impact. As history has proven Mo Sa-Li is far from a bad director but Bride with Painted Skin never played to his strenghts. There’s only so much a director can do with a botched screenplay, lest we forget. Haunted Sisters (2017) was more in his wheelhouse and marginally better thanks to its contemporary metropolitan setting.