Vicki Zhao (left) plays wife of General Wang Sheng while Zhou Xun plays the fox demon in the film "Painted Skin." [Photo: Shanghai Daily]
In the absence of a movie rating system, Chinese movie buffs generally have mixed feelings about domestic horror films.
Perhaps it's because most scary films in China have failed to create a really bone-chilling atmosphere in cinemas.
Maybe that has something to do with the fact that parents take their children to see these shows, resulting in excessive elements of the supernatural and horror being watered down by movie makers.
In that sense, shooting the costume thriller "Painted Skin" certainly presented a tough challenge for Hong Kong director Gordon Chan.
The US$15 million budgeted film starring Hong Kong action idol Donnie Yen, mainland heartthrob Chen Kun and actresses Zhou Xun, Sun Li and Vicki Zhao is set for release on Friday throughout China, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.
"This film is not made specifically for the sole purpose of terror," says Chan, known for police films like "Beast Cops" and "The Medallion." "Instead, you will find more tears than fears."
Chan's aim was to lead the audience through a tragic yet beautiful love story set in ancient China, a story based on a popular ghost tale by Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) writer Pu Songling.
Pu is famous for his novel "Liaozhai Zhiyi," ("Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio"), a Qing-era collection of supernatural stories.
One of them, "Painted Skin," centers on a vampire-like woman who eats the skin and hearts of humans.
Zhou plays the fox demon in painted human skin trying to eat humans. However, she falls in love with General Wang Sheng (Chen). Wang's wife (Zhao) then resorts to ghost-catchers to save her husband.
"In my eyes, the love triangle involving the two women and a man is the soul of the story," Chan says. "Pu's original novel is not all about ghosts. It provides an insight into personalities, ethics and delicate human relations."
Throughout the film, Zhou appears in dozens of different costumes to show off her charm and witchcraft.
Sun, who is better known for playing tender females, challenges Zhou in her role as a swordswoman.
"I take on a more masculine look in a black hat and coarse cloth," Sun says with a grin. "My former training in dancing helped me to master the martial arts scenes."
Sun notes that Chan managed to explore her potential for some other roles. Her ghost-catcher character experiences the hard psychological process from hatred to forgiveness.
As for Zhou, the challenge was to grasp the emotions, reactions and posture of a fox demon.
"I had to imagine myself being an animal," Zhou says. "Moreover, the demon is not absolutely evil. She has a juvenile attitude about love. I am glad that the ending of the movie is hopeful, not that cruel. The character finally gives up something for the sake of her lover."
Zhou's impressive performance in the new romance film "The Equation of Love and Death" has also brought her wide acclaim. In the offbeat love story, Zhou plays an ordinary cab driver who spends four years searching for her missing fiance.
The cinematography for "Painted Skin" was handled by award-winning Hong Kong cinematographer Arthur Wong, best known for his work in "The Warlords" and "Temptation Of A Monk."
Unlike many other ghost films, Wong bravely applies striking and lively color to create an eery and "inauthentic" ambience. "What we're trying to present is a non-traditional thriller," he says.
(Shanghai Daily September 25, 2008)