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Plot: scholar falls in love with a beautiful girl who might, or might not, be human.

The Extreme Fox (非狐外传) is about the last thing you’d expect from actor-producer-director Wellson Chin Sing-Wai. Chin started out as an assistant director under famed action choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping and actor-producer-director Sammo Hung Kam Bo, and is a specialist in action and comedy, or some combination thereof. Wellson Chin is mostly known around these parts for helming the enduring action comedy franchise The Inspector Wears Skirts (1988-1992) or the Police Academy (1984-1994) from Hong Kong as well as the delightfully insane Girls with Guns actioner Super Lady Cop (1992) with Cynthia Khan. In recognition of his human interest features The Third Full Moon (1994), Once In A Life-Time (1995) and The Day That Doesn't Exist (1995) Chin has received multiple Film of Merit awards (in 1994 and twice in 1995) from the Hong Kong Film Critics Society. While primarily active in the environs of Hong Kong Chin occassionally branches out into Mainland China and The Extreme Fox is a good example of a director doing a genre he isn’t typically associated with.

As far as we can tell The Extreme Fox is a loose adaptation of the short story The Painted Skin from Liaozhai Zhiyi, or Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, from Qing Dynasty writer Pu Songling. Songling’s writing has been the basis for a variety of adaptations including, among others, The Enchanting Shadow (1960), and its famous Tsui Hark reimagining A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), Green Snake (1993), Painted Skin (2008), Mural (2011), and Ghost Story: Bride with Painted Skin (2016), and is considered a timeless monument of Classical Chinese literature. The beauty of many of Songling’s stories is that they can be interpreted as either tragic romances or horror stories, depending on how you choose to read them. The Extreme Fox chooses the romantic aspect with only the bare minimum of horror scenes required to tell the story. While Ghost Story: Bride with Painted Skin (2016) was the more faithful adaptation it never quite reaches the heights of The Extreme Fox, which as far as perfectly serviceable period-costume romances is concerned, is on the smoother end of unremarkable and utilitarian. It never exhibits the creativity of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) neither does it possess the thick fairytale quality of Green Snake (1993). In those times before the hypnotically beautiful The Enchanting Phantom (倩女幽魂:人间情) (2020) this was a fairly faithful adaptation. Filmed in Hong Kong and aimed at the Mainland China market The Extreme Fox is extremely well-produced and beautiful to look at for what, for all intents and purposes, is a cheap webmovie.

Over the years we’ve taken quite a shine to Chrissie Chau Sau-Na (周秀娜). Chau rose to fame as a lang mo model with her 2009 and 2010 photobooks. Even though sweet Chrissie debuted in 2006 it wouldn’t be until Womb Ghosts (2010) four years later until it became apparent that she wasn’t just another model that stumbled into acting. Chau - famous for her 32D figure and the once-and-future queen of cleavage - was a spokesmodel for luxury lingerie brand Lamiu and in 2012 released her own lucrative bra line. In 2013 Chrissie appeared in 11 (!!) movies, among them Cold Pupil (2013), Lift to Hell (2013), and Kick Ass Girls (2013). In a career now spanning over a decade and sixty-plus productions Chrissie has worked everywhere from Hong Kong, and China, to Taiwan and Malaysia. Chau has played everything from the imperiled love interest, the enchanting spectral maiden, and the tough as nails action girl to more stereotypical romantic - and comedic roles. To our knowledge she never played a mermaid when that was something of a minor thing in Chinese webcinema a few years ago. Hampered by the same problem as Betty Sun Li (孙俪) and many far less than prominent (or talented, for that matter) Mainland China actresses Chrissie’s only fluent in her native Mandarin and Cantonese and she seems content to remain in regional and cultural borders. It’s unclear whether Chrissie speaks English (her Western social media at least suggest some basic knowledge and mastery of English, but her usage of it is inconsistent) and, if so, if she would be able to break into the Anglo-Saxon world in the same capacity as Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Q, Fan Bingbing, Yu Nan, and Ni Ni have.

In ancient Beijing narcoleptic Confucian scholar Wang Sheng (Alex Fong Lik-Sun) remains steadfast in his ambition to become a public servant in the bureaucracy of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Unfazed by the fact that he has failed the Imperial Examination three times in a row already, he travels to a small, sleepy farming hamlet in the village of Liuxian in the province of Wuxia. Liuxian has apparently been haunted for some time by a Kitsune or a fox spirit (why refer to it by its Japanese name if this is supposed to be ancient China?) if the Mayor (Lam Suet) is to be believed. Unable to afford bed and board Wang attracts the attention of gambling con artist Xiao Cui (or Glitter of Dawn) (Renata Tan Li-Na) and a very superstitious local girl (Cai Zi-Fen) before tavern hostess Li (He Mei-Tian) throws him out into the streets. He travels to the Miduo temple and is stunned to meet the beautiful Xianer (or Rosy Clouds Inside) (Chrissie Chau Sau-Na). What Sheng doesn’t realize is that Xianer is actually Princess Xianxia (Noble Summer or Noble Glow of Sunrise) who has spurned her lover General Wu Zhen (Huang Jun-Qi) and now exists as a húli jīng or nine-tailed fox. As Wang Sheng and Xianer face dangers, both ethereal and terrestrial, together a deep romance blossoms between the embattled fox spirit and her virtuous mortal suitor.

That The Extreme Fox is heavily redolent of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) goes almost without saying. Chrissie gets to wear a few beautiful dresses, there’s plenty of shots with Chrissie in a mist-shrouded forest, a condensed variation on the bathtub scene, but there’s no instances of Chau playing a guqin or singing. Neither are there any instances of martial arts, swordsplay, or characters breaking into impromptu song-and-dance numbers. Understandable as this was shot on the budget of the average television movie. The Extreme Fox is, fortunately, vastly superior in every respect than the ghost horror Ghost Story: Bride with Painted Skin (2016) while never reaching the epic scope of Painted Skin (2008), and Painted Skin: The Resurrection (2012) either. The Extreme Fox sits comfortably in between and truly makes the best of what it could accomplish on a limited budget. To its everlasting credit it’s far more faithful to its source material than Wilson Yip Wai-Shun’s A Chinese Ghost Story (2011) with Liu Yi-Fei (劉亦菲) from two years before. The production value is surprisingly decent for a webmovie for the Mainland China market. Had this been produced in Hong Kong it probably would feature a lot more action, but The Extreme Fox works the best as a supernatural love story. The two female name-stars apparently ended up on opposite ends of the cinematic spectrum. Renata Tan Li-Na would end up in the well-intended Girls With Guns action feature Angel Warriors (2013) and hasn’t acted since 2016, whereas Chrissie Chau Sau-Na has become a respected and respectable A-lister.

If your only exposure to Wellson Chin Sing-Wai was the The Inspector Wears Skirts (1988-1992) franchise and the loopy Cynthia Khan HK actioner Super Lady Cop (1992) you’d never expect him to be able to conjure up something as delightfully old-fashioned as this. It never quite reaches the lofty heights of Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) but that doesn’t stop it from at least trying to channel its essence. The Extreme Fox is closer in spirit to A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) than the ill-fated 2011 remake was. Joey Wong’s performance as the condemned ghost maiden is legendary for a reason, and Chrissie Chau Sau-Na does a close approximation of it here. On average (and given its slightly higher budget) Chau does a better nine-tailed fox than Shin Min-a (신민아) in the South Korean television series My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho (내 여자친구는 구미호) (2010). We would have preferred a prosthetic mask for the partial transformation scenes but digital is the way of today, so there’s that. Alex Fong Lik-Sun is tolerable enough as the clumsy and kind-hearted scholar but he’s no match for the late Leslie Cheung in one of his most memorable roles. Perhaps it’s the nature of the beast with this being a Pu Songling adaptation, but at key points The Extreme Fox re-enacts scenes from A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) sometimes almost verbatim. The most notable among these are the opening kill of an intrepid male wanderer, the truncated bathtub scene (albeit without the drifting rose petals, Chrissie Chau losing various articles of clothing, or any of the situational humour), and the scholar warding off various unholy forces of evil with a merry band of different allies. For reasons largely unexplained the nine-tailed fox (狐狸精) is referred to here by its Japanese name. Even the Korean gumiho (구미호) is more recognizable on average.

As it stands The Extreme Fox not only is one of the better Pu Songling adaptations, but also a Chrissie Chau Sau-Na feature that can be actively recommended for the casual viewer. It never becomes an epic or grand adventure on the scope of Mural (2011) but it compensates its lack of impressive setpieces with an abundance of dream-like atmosphere and a screenplay that understands the strengths of the story it’s adapting. It might not possess the oneiric, fairytale quality of Green Snake (1993), and in fact etches closer towards the stageplay quality of the Shaw Brothers classic The Enchanting Shadow (1960) from some five decades earlier. Mainland China has an abundance of fantasy wuxia on the small – and big screen, and the quality tends to be wildly divergent depending on any number of variables. The Extreme Fox comes to us by way of the Film Bureau which is usually never an indication of quality. Thankfully the opposite is true, and The Extreme Fox is a fantasy wuxia for a general audience. It might not be a match for Tsui Hark’s most celebrated works but it admirably rises to the occassion of transcending any number of limitations imposed upon it. That should count for something, and there’s Chrissie Chau Sau-Na too. Let’s not forget her….

Plot: urbanites are haunted by strange apparitions in their luxurious villa.

Cold Pupil (冷瞳 or, alternatively, Dark Eye in some markets) is another Chinese ghost story. Not just any story. A Mainland China ghost story so inoffensive, so vanilla, so telegraphed and obvious that it might as well be a domestic drama or extremely light thriller. Well, this being a Mainland China production it is a drama, first and foremost, albeit one that flirts with surface elements of Asian ghost horror. Mediocre even by the very forgiving ghost horror standards of Mainland China Cold Pupil is enlivened only by the presence of the always enjoyable Chrissie Chau Sau-Na. If you found We Are Not Alone (2016), Verónica (2017) or the more recent Terrified (2017) “scary” and "tense", this will be right up your alley. For everyone else, this is another good example why it is best to avoid Mainland China out of principle. It truly speaks to the mediocrity of a feature when Midnight Hair (2014) becomes the better alternative.

The director of Cold Pupil is one Cheung Kwok-Kuen, an editor that took to directing. As an editor he received multiple Hong Kong Film Awards in the mid-to-late eighties. His editing credits span all the way back to 1972 and as a director he has developed a predilection towards Category II b and ghost horror features. His work runs gamut across genres with horror as the main focus. He was responsible for the absolutely deranged Snake Curse (2004) that makes Hisss (2009) sound like a good idea. He has become a better director over time even if Cold Pupil might not look like it. No. Scratch that. Cold Pupil looks exactly like a feature you’d expect from an editor. It’s slick and polished enough from a technical standpoint, except that it never develops a pulse. Even Haunted Sisters (2017) from director Mo Sa-Li was livelier than this, and he somehow managed to have a career after Ghost Story: Bride with Painted Skin (2016). While it’s pretty enough it doesn’t make for a compellng viewing. Often it feels twice as long than it actually is, and it takes forever for something nothing substantial to happen.

To celebrate their latest victory in the cutthroat corporate world elderly businessman Mr. So (Lau Sek-Ming) offers his daughter Su Yuchen (Chrissie Chau Sau-Na) a relaxing retreat in an opulent villa he has rented for the occasion. Joining Yuchen is So’s trusted associate Xu Bowen (Sam Lee Chan-Sam) and the free-spirited Kent Zhong (Calvin Sun Zu-Yang). Both vie for the attention, romantic and otherwise, of Yuchen. Their peace at the villa is disturbed when old man So suffers a heart attack for no apparent medical reason. The entire episode is enough for the three to rent the villa longer than originally scheduled. Just when peace and quiet has returned Yuchen claims she saw the apparition of a young woman. The two initially shrug it off as a figment of Yuchen’s all too vivid imagination after her father’s health scare. To take Yuchen’s mind off things the three head to the King’s Bar where they always get special attention from owner Fang Yuen (Zhang Shi-Xu). As the hauntings persist the three agree to install digital surveillance, in the form of portable digital cameras, all around the house to catch a glimpse of the red-dressed ghost. Her interest piqued Yuchen talks with the landlord (Wong You-Nam) about the building’s past and its history with previous tenants. Unbeknowst Yuchen and Kent happen upon a long-buried sordid family secret involving the Cold Pupil, one of Mr. So’s extramarital affairs (Izumi Liu Yu-Qi, as Liu Yu-Qi), and one startling revelation that Bowen is prepared to murder for to keep secret.

Even at an economic 90 minutes Cold Pupil fails to leave much, if any, impression – even after multiple viewings. As a ghost horror, or even as a thriller, there’s never any suspense and the lack of tension is exceeded only by the thinness of the proceedings. It’s incredible how it is simultaneously immensely belabored and convoluted as well as unbashedly shallow at the same time. For one the screenplay from Zhang Er and Yan Sufang is a staggering mess that does nobody any favors. The cinematography from Chen You-Liang is decent enough but is dull for the most part. The individual performances are tolerable enough, but these features are hardly the right place to look for emerging new talent. Lift to Hell (2013), however futilely, at least attempted to keep up the façade of horror. Suffice to say, Cold Pupil is anything but riveting. In fact Cold Pupil is so unengaging, stilted and superficial that you might as well start paying attention to other things. The cast, for one, has its share of familiar webmovie faces.

The most famous of the cast is Chrissie Chau Sau-Na (周秀娜). By 2012 Chau had paid her dues after years and years of starring in Category II fodder of various stripe. Cold Pupil was indicative that she was commencing an upward trajectory in her career. In 2013 alone sweet Chrissie did 11 (!!) movies, among them Lift to Hell (2013), Kick Ass Girls (2013), and The Extreme Fox (2013). Ghost horrors and fantasy wuxia have been something of a staple in Chrissie Chau’s filmography since debuting in 2006. It’s hard to imagine that Chrissie would star in the critically savaged Jing Wong comedy iGirl (2016) and a year later would win the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actress for 29+1 (2017). iGirl (2016) elevated Chrissie Chau Sau-Na to the mainstream and with Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (2018) from director Yuen Wo-Ping she landed her most prestigious project. Since then sweet Chrissie’s star continues to rise and it’s about time some brave Western director casts her in an English-language production. If Ni Ni (倪妮) can survive The Warriors Gate (2016) and Yu Nan (余男) was one of the reasons to stay awake for The Expendables 2 (2012) the world is ready for our girl Chrissie.

The other star, although more nominal compared to Chau Sau-Na, is Liu Yu-Qi (刘羽琦) or Izumi as the Japanese know her. Chinese netizens have dubbed her "Small Heavenly Queen of Adverts" or the "Most Beautiful Chinese Woman on the Web", depending on where you look. Liu Yu-Qi rose to fame in 2006 after winning the National Football Babe Competition and went on to star in numerous real estate - and beverage magazine adverts. After Cold Pupil she went on to star in the wuxia comedy Da Song Fei Wen Lu (大宋緋聞錄) (2017) as a rite of passage of sorts that virtually every up-and-coming Chinese actress has to go through at some point. That feature, of course, made extensive usage of Yu-Qi’s famous curvy 34D figure. Chrissie Chau isn’t given a whole lot to do, besides walking around in her nightie, taking a shower or a bath, and occasionally looking at herself in the mirror and (very badly) screaming her head off. Liu Yu-Qi is just there to look pretty and is killed off almost immediately after she’s introduced. Nothing is as Chinese as a pretty girl in a flowervase role. At least things have gotten better in recent years.

As much as Cold Pupil focuses on the romantic permutations of its fairly attractive cast, there isn’t nary any chemistry, or sexual tension, between any of them. Chrissie Chau Sau-Na and Calvin Sun Zu-Yang are supposedly longtime lovers, or at least romantically entangled for quite some time. Yet they play it as if they are brother and sister and thus are not in the least sexually or romantically interested in each other. In a flashback scene Liu Yu-Qi briefly is able to raise the temperature but with this being a Mainland China feature approved by the Film Bureau the scene is ended before something, anything, happens. There’s enough shower scenes for everybody, but none of them ever amount to anything.

Daniella Wang Li Danni in Midnight Hair (2014) and Zhang Lan-Yi in Haunted Sisters (2017) both had far more daring shower scenes in their respective movies, and the comparisons that have been made to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) are far-fetched, to say the least. Cold Pupil isn’t going to win anybody over with its originality and what little scares there are are completely telegraphed. Hong Kong, Korea, and Thailand do the ghost horror far better than China, by far. Also, who in their right mind casts Chrissia Chau Sau-Na and Liu Yu-Qi and does proceeds to do completely nothing with them? Talk of a waste of talent. There’s a case to be made that by 2013 sweet Chrissie was too good for inconsequential drivel like this. For years she had been working her way up from the muck of Mainland China webmovie exploitation – and if Cold Pupil is indicative of anything, it’s that Chrissie was on her way to bigger and better things. Mainland China ghost movies, sadly, remain as turgid (not to mention pointless) as ever.