Chinese fantasy/period films of late have mostly employed the same formula. Ever since Chen Kaige's big budget (yet infamously panned) The Promise (2005), producers seemed to have taken it as a permission to let loose on the CGI and compromise on the storyline.
Case(s) in point: Jet Li's double-whammy disappointments in 2011 showcased two Chinese classics The Sorcerer and the White Snake
and The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate
performing dismally amongst genre fans, heavily denting the once-respected brand of the period film.
Fortunately, though, this year's highly hyped follow-up to the original Painted Skin (2008) not only serves to restore faith in Chinese cinematic tales, but also proves that first-rate computer-generated visuals are not only reserved for Hollywood films.
The leads of the first movie return (sans Donnie Yen) to this 'resurrection' - namely Zhou Xun, Vicki Zhao and Chen Kun - with the ladies' mesmerising and heartbreaking performances easily warranting the ticket price.
Zhou's brilliantly seductive turn as fox demon Xiao Wei is fascinating to watch, her doe-like expressions coupled with her husky voice draws not only her victims in, but the viewers' undivided attention as well. On the other hand, Zhao's heart-wrenching role of a disfigured princess insecurely pining for Chen's General Huo Xin's love is tragic to witness, her strong exterior only accentuating her brittle interior.
The pair of powerhouse actresses literally carries the show - and the opulently gorgeous costumes - their interaction even more captivating when they finally switched their skins.
The aforementioned praise-worthy visuals are also in full display here: from the striking imagery of Zhou running through a field in a dramatic dress, down to the literally skin-crawling body-swap of the demon and the princess, they are often expertly and effectively executed.
However, the one major gripe about this second movie would have to be the disastrous secondary storyline involving the Tian Lang Kingdom. Chinese-American singer Kris Phillips - better known as Fei Xiang - single-handedly derails the second half of the film with his cringe-worthy babblings and uncomfortable Mandarin accent as a chief wizard bent on destroying the lives of Princess Jing and the general.
While the first Painted Skin deftly plays on central themes of love and sacrifice amidst the creepy tones of The Strange Tales of Liao Zhai, this pseudo-sequel snatches the attention away from a potentially solid screenplay of the sisterly bond between the two female protagonists, leaving audiences sniggering at the silly plot of a fictional kingdom's invasion.
That said, this part two of sorts does deliver strongly enough in the acting and special effects department that will be sufficient to thrill the average movie-goer, but like the original movie, there are still missed opportunities that can make this supernatural series a truly unique one.