A version of this review appeared in The Age, June 28, 2012.
A tale of passion, transformation and beauty, this lavish Chinese fantasy can be enjoyed without worrying about its predecessor Painted Skin (2008). The heroine Princess Jing (Zhao Wei) is mauled by a bear in her teens, and wears a stylish gold mask to hide the scar. Fearful that her handsome true love General Huo Xin (Chen Kun) will be repelled by her disfigurement, she seeks the aid of Xiouwei (Zhou Xun), a pale-faced fox demon with a penchant for ripping out men's hearts. The pair swap identities, a highly intimate procedure that for some reason has to occur while both are naked in a steam bath.
It's no surprise to learn Xiouwei has motives of her own for entering into the deal. In the meantime, a horde of barbarians prepare to invade the kingdom, under the command of a sneering, cadaverous sorcerer (Fei Xiang). Other characters include a bumbling demon-hunter (Feng ShaoFeng) whose uneasy flirtation with a tricksy bird demon (the delightful Yang Mi) supplies the comic relief.
The director Wuershan, whose grotesque farce The Butcher, The Chef and the Swordsman had a brief run in Australian cinemas, aims for a lush, romantic style here. He favours rich colours, speed ramping, sweeping music and cartoonish special effects, while highlighting the contrasting textures of metal, water, flesh and fabric. Even the action sequences are prettified: a shower of burning arrows appears gorgeous rather than threatening, and a fight between lovers feels more like a pas de deux.