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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: 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….