REVIEW: Painted Skin (2008)

A fox demon disguises herself as a human and falls in love with a General. She plots to replace his wife and be his lover.

By Raymond Arcega
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Painted Skin

Original Title: 畫皮
Year: 2008
Countries: Hong Kong, China
Language: Mandarin
Genres: Martial Arts, Fantasy, Romantic Drama, Thriller
Director: Gordon Chan

A tale of tragic love, Painted Skin is loosely based on one of Pu Songling’s classic short stories in Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, which dates back to the early Qing Dynasty. Most of the author’s stories featured powerful spirits and demons interacting with humans, who are weak and easily manipulated and persuaded. Perhaps a reflection of human society back then, and even now.


Xiao Wei (the luscious Zhou Xun) is a fox demon in the guise of a human, able to maintain her immortality and beauty by devouring the hearts of others. After consuming the heart of a Xiongnu nomad leader, she is rescued from their camp by General Wang Sheng (Chen Kun) and his forces, who decide to bring her back home.

However, trouble is on the horizon when Xiao Wei, who takes up work in the General’s residence as his new maid, falls in love with him. Shang’s wife Peirong (Zhao Wei) takes notice of this, but because of mysterious happenings that have started occurring as of late, becomes suspicious towards the beautiful maid.

As fate would have it, former general Pang Yong (acclaimed action star Donnie Yen) – a former lover of Peirong and brother-in-arms of Wang Sheng – has been discovered after two years of absence. Peirong recruits his help, suspecting that Xiao Wei might be a demon, as there have been many strange happenings revolving around her since the day she arrived.


Donnie Yen is a big name among the star-studded cast, bringing his famed martial arts repertoire for fans to enjoy. However, longtime fans of the superstar would agree that Painted Skin does not feature his best martial arts work. Martial arts is far from being the center of this supernatural tale.

Rather, this is a film centered on demons stepping into the human world of love. It features elements from the genres of romance, drama, martial arts, fantasy, and even horror. It blends each genre well, and adds an haunting atmosphere.


Watching Painted Skin as a martial arts film will bring out all sorts of disappointments. The number of action scenes could probably be counted with one hand, and the choreography is nothing near to Yen’s other work, like Dragon Tiger Gate, Ip Man, or Seven Swords.

Donnie Yen and Chen Kun are our two heroes in the story, and they do well holding their own. However, when compared to the performances of the leading ladies Zhou Xun and Zhao Wei, they seem like total stiffs. Indeed it is the ladies who steal the spotlight, and it’s easy to say that it’s easy to look more forward to their on-screen appearances than the boys’.


It’s hard to decide who had a stronger performance between Zhao Wei and Zhou Xun. Zhao Wei’s Peirong is a strong woman who loves her husband, but it’s up to debate whether her fight originally stemmed from fidelity or from jealousy. No one can really blame her, as Zhou Xun’s Xiao Wei is just utterly steaming. It’s hard to say that the actress really isn’t a demon, as even the audience will get seduced by her wicked charm.

The film does rely a little bit on CG for its visual aesthetic. While the CG is nothing groundbreaking, there were many parts that left a mark. One such scene was when Xiao Wei peels away her skin to reveal the horror underneath.


Painted Skin is a great blend of genres. While not being the strongest in any particular one, it mixes them all together into a seamless story. The drama in this tale is reminiscent of some of the classics of Greek tragedies. We can get taken away with its fantastical parts, jump in fright at its horrific ones, and above all, get seduced by the whispers of fox demons wearing human skin.

Watch this film…

…and you will be taken into the seduction of Zhou Xun.

About the Author

Raymond Arcega


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