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Plot: three friends order custom-built robot girlfriends. Hilarity ensues!

For the last quarter century Hong Kong producer, director, screenwriter, and actor Jing Wong has been a force to be reckoned with. His natural affinity in catering to audience tastes and his eye for female beauty made him one of the consistently profitable cinema industry powers. Since starting out in the early-to-mid eighties Wong has capitalized on every fad, movement, and big budget Hollywood movie of note and gave them his own unique Hong Kong spin. He launched the careers of Chow Yun-Fat, Jet Li, Andy Lau, and Stephen Chow. In the eighties and nineties he introduced Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching, Joey Wong, Sharla Cheung Man, Brigitte Lin, and Valerie Chow to the world. In more recent times he has worked with Maggie Q, Jennifer Tse Ting-Ting, and Candy Yuen Ka-Man. Towards the close of the nineties Wong’s features have been slumming at the domestic box office and he has since focused on the Mainland China market. Ever the crowd-pleaser Jing Wong returns his old stomping ground of the broad comedy, and as such iGirl (夢情人) is both boorish and sentimental in equal measure.

Never shy about capitalizing about an ongoing cinematic trend Wong uses the 2005 six-volume manga 絶対彼氏 or Zettai Kareshi (or Absolute Boyfriend) from Yuu Watase as the basis for iGirl. iGirl, of course, being his broad comedy take on the ongoing, decade-long (and counting) Mainland China cyborg girlfriend craze following the release of Jae-young Kwak’s seminal My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) with Haruka Ayase and Hirokazu Kore’eda’s humanist fairytale Air Doll (2009) with Bae Doo-na. iGirl is built from the I’m Your Birthday Cake (1996) template in that it mixes romance with broad comedy. The slapstick never gets quite as odious as some of Wong’s more irritatingly juvenile comedies, and it’s certainly a lot better of what passes for comedy in Mainland China, but that doesn’t change that iGirl is pretty terrible at times. The star, and much of the focal point, of iGirl is Chrissie Chau Sau-Na (周秀娜). Chau has worked her way up from the dregs of Mainland China cinema and iGirl was the first sign her career was finally moving forward. Whether or not she’ll become the new Jing Wong muse is up for debate, but it’s good seeing Chrissie in something that isn’t monitored by the Film Bureau for once. Chrissie is a decent enough actress, she cuts a dashing figure (something of which Wong is acutely aware) – but many of her movies rarely played up to her strenghts. This was sweet Chrissie’s first truly big break.

Lin Xiao-Feng (Ekin Cheng Yee-Kin), Johnny (Dominic Ho Hou-Man), and Zhu Yun (Lam Tze-Chung) are lifelong friends that continue to live in a state of arrested adolescence. One night the three go out clubbing and find themselves dumped by their respective girlfriends. The three drink and dance the night away to forget about their current amorous predicament. Lin Xiao-Feng (Evan in some versions), the most upwardly mobile of the trio, in his drunken stupor orders his dreamgirl from a site called “Get Your Dream iGirl” by typing in a few meager criteria. Believing the enterprise to be a practical joke he’s surprised when his order is shipped and delivered overnight. After following the instructions of the iGirl manual his new companion 001 (Chrissie Chau Sau-Na) comes to life. Johnny and Zhu Yun (Irwin in some versions) are astonished by the functionality, adaptability, and compatibility of Evan’s cybernetic companion and immediately see the possibilities. The two order their own iGirl and before long 002 (Connie Man Hoi-Ling) and 003 (Joyce Cheng Yan-Yi) complete the trio’s social circle. With their new cyborg girlfriends at their side the three men have the time of their life, much to the chagrin of their former girlfriends. Janice (Jeana Ho Pui-Yu), Chili (Iris Chung Choi-Hei), and Rebecca (Yam Giu) break into the iGirl laboratory, nearly killing iGirl creator Dr. Intelligent (Anders Nelsson) in the process, kidnapping their ex-boyfriends, and vowing to exact their revenge on the iGirls.

Director Kam Ka-Wai assistant directed under Wilson Yip Wai-Shun on Ip Man (2008) and under Marco Mak Chi-Sin on Naked Soldier (2012). It’s never a question of whether Kam Ka-Wai is competent enough to helm a production of this kind. If anything iGirl is hampered by Jing Wong’s retrograde writing. It could have been a lot worse, certainly, but that doesn’t excuse the lazy writing in the slightest. Most of the cast all worked with Jing Wong on prior occassions. Ekin Cheng Yee-Kin worked with Wong as far back as the lamentable Future Cops (1993) with Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching and the original Young and Dangerous (1995). Chrissie Chau is known around these parts for her triple role in the low-key and occassionally atmospheric Lift to Hell (2013). Ekin Cheng Yee-Kin and Chau shared the screen in Break Up 100 (2014) whereas Dominic Ho and Connie Man were paired up earlier in The Gigolo 2 (2016). Chrissie Chau Sau-Na, and Iris Chung Choi-Hei worked together earlier on Mr. and Mrs. Player (2013). Had this been released in the eighties or nineties Wong would probably have played Lam Tze-Chung’s role himself. The sole action scene in the third act was choreographed by Jack Wong Wai-Leung and his two decades of experience are clearly visible on screen. Comedy and action after all have been Wong’s trusted allies since he started out in the mid-1980s. If there’s ever going to be a fourth Naked installment we wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if it ends up starring Chrissie Chau Sau-Na. The Naked franchise has been insteady decline since Naked Weapon (2002) and she might just be what is needed to restore the series to its former Naked Killer (1992) glory.

Mainland China comedies are hit-or-miss, and romantic comedies even moreso. The ascent of the Film Bureau and production companies as Q1Q2 have spawned a swamp of comedies that are either irritating in their reliance on slapstick, cheap beyond description, or plain lacking in any sort of talent – or a combination of all three. iGirl is good enough for what it is but it never had any artistic aspirations as, say, Suddenly Seventeen (2016) with Ni Ni. Neither, for that matter, does it lower itself to the slapstick absurdities of Fetching Nurses (2018). Chrissie Chau Sau-Na conforms to the beauty ideal of every Jing girl following that of his one-time mistress and longtime muse Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching and it’s telling that only she has an isolated nude scene (optically fogged out in the domesic cut for all the obvious reasons). At times it feels as if Connie Man Hoi-Ling is but a placeholder for Candy Yuen Ka-Man. The casting of plus-size Joyce Cheng Yan-Yi is good in that it sets the stage for the casting of rounder girls as, Yang Ke (杨可) and Zhu Ke Er (朱可儿) in Wong productions. Yan-Yi’s father is Adam Cheng Siu-Chow (鄭少秋) from Tsui Hark’s Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983). iGirl obviously gets the most mileage out of Chau Sau-Na and Hoi-Ling and at no point does Yan-Yi get traded in for a slimmer model. It’s probably a matter of time before we’ll see Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang (潘霜霜), Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan (胡梦媛), and the considerably more A-list Ada Liu Yan (柳岩), turn up in a Jing Wong production. Equal but opposite maybe one day we’ll see Pan Chun Chun (潘春春) in a Sino comedy or action feature that actually knows what to do with her.

There’s something inherently funny about Chrissie Chau Sau-Na, an actress frequently lambasted for her robotic acting, playing a robot. Chrissie’s far better than people are willing to give her credit for. The truth is if you were to accuse anyone of stilted and minimalist non-acting Miki Zhang Yi-Gui (张已桂) is the actress to look for. Not that Chrissie’s one of the great new Chinese actresses. Betty Sun Li and Ni Ni, to name but two, are way more versatile and talented than Chrissie will ever be. The problem that Chrissie, and many Chinese actresses like her, has is that she’s only fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin. On her social media Chrissie can be seen posting in English from time to time but her usage of it is rare enough to make it an outlier. Unlike Fan Bingbing, Yu Nan, or Ni Ni, few commandeer the language well enough to appeal to Western audiences and most only are fluent in their national languages. Elder stateswoman Gong Li famously rejected a Hollywood career because she didn’t command the language well enough, as did Chiaki Kuriyama (who’s Japanese, but the point stands). Unfortunately the same rings true for South Korean television actresses as Shin Min-a (신민아), Ko Sung-hee (고성희), and Chae Soo-bin (채수빈) who should have pierced the Western cultural landscape by now, but somehow haven’t. In times of globalism China and the Koreas remain staunchly isolationist. In any case iGirl has elevated Chrissie Chau Sau-Na to the mainstream and Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (2018) from director Yuen Wo-Ping is probably her most prestigious project yet. Not too bad of an career advancement for a girl that spent a decade or so in the dregs of Chinese cinema.

The other retroactively famous star was the late Yam Giu (Xiong Hua-Hua, Zhiyi Ren, or Ren Jiao, depending on your preference) who passed away on October 16, 2017 after falling (under dubious circumstances) from the 13th floor balcony of the Howard Johnson All Suites hotel in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province. At the time Yam Giu (who sort of looked like, but is not, Angelababy) was staying at a different hotel and merely visiting her actor-friend Yang Xuwen who was in the city for filming. Yam Giu had been romantically linked with Yang Xuwen and was visiting the city with her mother. On the morning of October 16 her nude body was discovered on the hotel lawn and immediately led to widespread speculation about the circumstances surrounding her passing. Everything from alcoholism to suicidal depression was mentioned in the tabloid press, yet as of 2017 no clear cause of death was determined. One of the last productions that Yam Giu was involved with was the Fang Mo horror-action trilogy Hello, Mr. Vampire (2016), Hello, Ms. Vampire (2016) and Beauty in the Doomsday (2017). Perhaps Yam Giu could have been a Chinese superstar, perhaps not. Just like Iberian cult queen Soledad Miranda in 1970 Yam Giu was cut down in her prime.

After the controversial The Gigolo (2015) and its 2016 sequel iGirl seems incredibly restrained in comparison. Connie Man Hoi-Ling and Iris Chung Choi-Hei both are allowed to keep their clothes on. For the majority of the feature Hoi-Ling wears a deeply cut red dress while Chrissie Chau Sau-Na has the most diverse wardrobe and Joyce Cheng Yan-Yi the exact opposite. The Jing girls are as gorgeous as they’ve ever been and the grandmaster hasn’t lost his eye for spotting promising female talent. iGirl is one of Wong’s better romantic comedies in the post-Chingmy Yau age and it’s good seeing reliable second-tiers as Chrissie Chau Sau-Na in a leading role. Granted, iGirl doesn’t give her a whole lot to work with, but that’s hardly a fault of her own. To go from Lift to Hell (2013) and The Extreme Fox (2013) to this must be called progress. That she won the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actress for her film 29+1 (2017) a year later was indicative that her career was at long last going places. Chau Sau-Na should probably do another Kick Ass Girls (2013) or full-blown Girls with Guns action movie, whether it’s in Hong Kong or Mainland China. Obviously iGirl isn’t the new Jing Wong comedy classic. The writing’s immensely retrograde and the comedy seldom hits the mark. All things considered iGirl is more than decent enough for what it is. In the wildly divergent and fluctuating robot girfriend subgenre; you could do far, far worse than this…

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.