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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.

Plot: pregnant woman is murdered… and comes to haunt her wrongdoers.

Ghost with Hole (for once a pretty accurate translation of the original Sundel Bolong, released alternatively as Devil Woman internationally) is, if not the height of Indonesian horror, than at least one of its more enduring and recognizable entries. Directed by one of the country’s grandmasters, headlined by two of its biggest stars and an ensemble cast of familiar and beloved supporting players Ghost with Hole is not likely to scare away Western viewers with any brazen insanity. Maybe Hong Kong was more colorful, maybe Japan was quirkier but nothing compares to Indonesian horror. Suzzanna portrayed more spirits, witches, and mythical creatures than anyone else and Barry Prima cornered the action/adventure – and martial arts market. Ghost with Hole unites the two in a phantasmagoria of melodrama, bloodsoaked carnage and an absolute minimum of broad crude comedy. It probably also helps that Ghost with Hole doesn’t stray from the well-trodden paths of the typical Asian ghost horror. If you’re looking to explore Indonesian horror Ghost with Hole is an ideal startingpoint.

The Queen Of Indonesian Horror wasn’t created overnight. In fact it very well took a decade or so before Suzzanna was bestowed the prestigious title. As these things tend to go the woman that would become known in Indonesia (and beyond) for her portrayal of wronged women returning as vengeful spirits, witches, and assorted folkloric beings debuted inconspicuously at the tender age of 16 in the drama Girl's Dormitory (1958). Her performance was so electrifying that in 1960 she was given the Best Child Actress and Golden Harvest Award at the Asian Film Festival and recognized for her talent at the Indonesian Film Festival. A few years later she married actor Dicky Suprapto. Suzzanna’s star and profile continued to ascend with The Longest Dark (1970), Birth In the Tomb (1972), and Crazy Desire (1973). Suzzanna frequently worked with directors Ali Shahab, Liliek Sudjio, and H. Tjut Djalil, as well as Rapi Films and Soraya Intercine Film. One of her frequent co-stars were martial artist Barry Prima, Clift Sangra, and at even future director Ratno Timoer. By 1974 Suzzanna was separated from Suprapto.

The man that would shepherd her career to domestic and international acclaim and her most defining roles would be Sisworo Gautama Putra. He was the man behind the first (and, to our recollection, only) Indonesian cannibal romp on the Italian model Primitives (1980) as well as the American market oriented Wolf (1981) and Satan’s Slave (1982), imitations of American scare classics Friday the 13th (1980) and Phantasm (1979), respectively. Under Putra’s auspices Suzzanna became the leading lady in notable horror epics as Ghost with Hole, The Queen Of Black Magic (1981), Soundgarden (1982), and The Snake Queen (1982). In between her horrors Suzzanna did her fair share of dramas but that didn’t stop her from getting anoited best female antagonist in Indonesian film alongside Ruth Pelupessi, and Mieke Wijaya. She married Clift Sangra in 1983. From there she made The Snake Queen's Wedding (1983), Lake Eerie (1984), The Hungry Snake Woman (1986), Death-Spreading Heirloom (1990), the A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) inspired Pact with the Forces of Darkness (1991), and The Queen of the South Sea (1991). In 1993 Suzzanna announced her retirement from the silver screen after the passing of Sisworo Gautama Putra. Fifteen years later, on 15 October 2008, Suzzanna passed way, age 66, in her home in Potrobangsan, Magelang after complications from diabetes. Ghost with Hole is probably the only Suzzanna feature that international audiences know.

In Southeast Asian folklore a sundel bolong is the vengeful spirit of a wronged pregnant woman (usually a prostitute – when they’re not it’s a kuntilanak) unable to give birth when she was still alive. For that reason she has a large hole in her back when in spirit form. Ghost with Hole was made after Primitives (1980) and before Wolf (1981) and the poster promises something, “beautiful… exciting… unforgiving!” Just to be sure and cover all bases it also mentions, “This story is based on a folk legend.” Ah, yes. The sundel bolong. One of the more recognizable ghosts in Southeast Asian folklore and one of the ur-characters in Indonesian horror - and weird cinema from as long as it has been around. Her appearance is recognizable even to Western audiences. Who doesn’t get the shivers whenever a long ravenhaired ghost in a white sari appears? In the West Asian ghosts like this were popularized by modern J-horror classics as Ringu (2002) but they have existed for far longer and have been around since the dawn of Asian horror cinema at large.

In other scenes Suzzanna can be seen as a Pocong (shrouded ghost) and as a Kui'yang (Krasue in Thailand, Penanggal in Malaysia, or Manananggal in the Philippines) or the floating disembodied head of an attractive woman with the entrails hanging down from the neck. This was one of Suzzanna’s first and most iconic roles and has her like Barbara Steele before her in a double role. Everything’s here: the mysterious beautiful lady with the umbrella, the superstitious elderly (or lowly houseservant), and a shaman. Ghost with Hole also prominently features the Leopold Stokowski arrangement of the 1867 Modest Mussorgsky tone poem Night on Bald Mountain, famously used in Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940) as well as light washes of serene ambient electronics. Sure, it might not be Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis, or Michael Stearns but it works. The practical effects by Didin Syamsudin are wonderfully gooey and the optical effecs, while rudimentary at best, where and when they appear are on par with the Filipino, Indian, and Taiwanese horrors of the day.

Newlyweds Hendarto (Barry Prima, as Berry Prima) and Alisa (Suzzanna) are blissfully happy with their union after several years of courtship. Hendarto is a ship captain in the navy and Alisa lives a virtuous, chaste, and morally upright life devoted to both her husband and her faith. In their opulent mansion their every need and want is looked after by live-in elderly houseservant Bi Ijah (Marlia Hardi). On their wedding reception Hendarto receives a call to report for duty and prepare for a long-term deployment. Unable to consummate their relationship the young housewife spends her days frantically knitting in longing despair. One day Alisa receives a call for a modeling job from Rudy (Rudy Salam) of Rudy Boutique. In reality the boutique is merely a front for the prostitution ring he’s running with Mami (Ruth Pelupessi, as Ruth Pellupessy) the madam from the brothel Alisa worked at back in the days when she was a prostitute. The modeling job is merely a ruse for Rudy to try and force himself upon Alisa but she spurns his advances. That night Rudy sends his goons Jefri (H.I.M. Damsyik), Dadung (Eddy Hansudi), Tom (Rukman Herman), and Bram (El Koesno) to collect her for Mami’s prostitution ring. In a derelict factory Rudy and his thugs take turns raping Alisa. Taking the case to court Alisa is mischaracterized as a harlot having provoked the attack and the corrupt judiciary swiftly acquits the perpetrators. She returns home broken and it dawns upon her that she’s pregnant with her rapists’ babies.

Haunted by harrowing visions of deformed and disfigured infants, disgraced in the eyes of polite society, and bearing the burden of crushing shame and humiliation Alisa takes her own life by slitting her wrists. Upon hearing the news of his wife’s tragic passing Hendarto and Bi Ijah bury Alisa. Returning home that night Hendarto runs into a woman bearing a striking resemblance to his late wife introducing herself as Shinta (Suzzanna). Understandably sentimental he welcomes her into his now cold empty home. What Hendarto does not realize is that Shinta is Alisa’s spirit resurrected. Her new persona allows her to spend time with Hendarto but necessity forces her to hide from him that she’s a sundel bolong. Superstitious Bi Ijah almost immediately notices that something strange is afoot. From there Alisa vows to to kill her wrongdoers, one at a time. During her nocturnal hauntings Alisa meets a friendly pedicab driver (Dorman Borisman) and sympathetic foodstall owner Ceking (Bokir) as she ferociously gorges on soup and satay (sate). As Alisa continues to haunt the remaining thugs Rudy introduces Heti (Diana Suarkom) to new clients. As their numbers dwindle and Alisa continues to enact revenge from beyond the unholy grave the increasingly desperate thugs hire a shaman (or dukun) (Adang Mansyur). Who or what will be able to exorcise the tenebrous apparition from sowing death and destruction wherever she goes?

To the average viewer this stars nobody in particular when in fact Ghost with Hole features some of the most recognizable faces and biggest stars of Indonesian horror and weird cinema of the day. Barry Prima was in Primitives (1980) and The Devil’s Sword (1984), among many others. Dorman Borisman and H.I.M. Damsyik were in The Queen Of Black Magic (1981), The Snake Queen (1982) and The Snake Queen's Wedding (1983) (where Suzzanna shared the screen with Enny Beatrice on both occasions). Ruth Pelupessi got her own ghost horror with Black Magic Wizard (1981) that same year. Other notable pillars such as Enny Beatrice, Eva Arnaz, Gudi Sintara, and Enny Christina never commandeered the same kind of clout as did Suzzanna. Nor did they for that matter held the same international appeal. Enny Beatrice was something of a lesser queen with an illustrious oeuvre including, among others, Alligator Queen (1983), Bloody Hill (1985), Virgins From Hell (1987), and Jungle Virgin Force (1988). While Suzzanna was the queen of horror there interestingly was no corresponding king. Barry Prima sort of qualifies but he was anywhere and everywhere and did everything. He was that versatile an actor and martial artist. One of the real survivors of the Indonesia’s low budget hell is Lydia Kandou – she of Wolf (1981) and Sisworo Gautama Putra’s Arabian Nights epic Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (1982) - who has carved out a legitimate career for herself as a respected and well-liked comedic and dramatic actress in the decades since. As for Suzzanna? Well, she was, is, and remains one of the highest Indonesian nobility, domestic and abroad.

Ghost with Hole is a well-deserved staple in Indonesian horror and the sundel bolong is one of the classic vengeful female ghosts of South Asian folklore. Both remain just as prevalent now as they were then. There’s no denying the fact that Suzzanna was, is, and remains a cultural behemoth, a domestic grand monument and an international export of global reverence and acclaim. She was sort of a pioneer to boot. Equivalent of what Maria Menado was to Malaysia and roughly what Amalia Fuentes was to the Philippines (although there’s a valid point to be made that Fuentes appeared in a greater variety of roles across a multitude of genres). As such it’s entirely logical that some of Suzzanna’s features would be ripe for a modern day reimagining. Ghost with Hole was very loosely (but very lovingly) reimagined as Suzzanna: Buried Alive (2018) that acted as both a remake and a heartfelt tribute. As things stand currently it was the first part of a proposed tripartite Suzzanna franchise, produced and curated by Rocky Soraya. It’s slated to be followed by Guntur Soeharjanto’s Suzzanna: Kliwon Friday Night (2023) and Suzzanna: Witchcraft of Life Melting Knowledge after that. Taking over the role of Suzzanna is Luna Maya. Maya evidently carefully studied Suzzanna as she recreated many of the real Suzzanna’s mannerisms. Few are given that kind of loving tribute and even fewer legacies continue to resonate with audiences that long. A Suzzanna biopic is inevitably bound to follow, hopefully with Luna Maya too.