Thursday, January 31, 2008

ICE COLD IN HENGDIAN : On location for ‘Painted Skin’ (part 2)

Painted Skin is based on a story by Pu Song-ling. The tales of supernatural horrors collected in his Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio have inspired numerous film adaptations, including the classic A Chinese Ghost Story (and its sequels), Li Han-hsiang’s Enchanting Shadow and King Hu’s Cannes award-winning A Touch Of Zen. Painted Skin (Hua Pi) was previously filmed by Fong Pao (in 1966) and again, in 1993, as the final film of King Hu. The current version is a Hong Kong-Chinese co-production, and its to the credit of director Gordon Chan’s script that the project was approved by the state censors, who tend to frown on stories focusing on ‘superstitious’ elements.

The huge set for this incarnation of Painted Skin, being shot on a soundstage in Hengdian World Studios, recreates the Chinese ‘hanging coffins’ found in Fujian, Hebei and elsewhere. This interior is actually colder than a lot of the exteriors I’ve visited, which makes the warm greeting from director Gordon Chan all the more welcome. (To the surprise of many, he is still talking to me after The Medallion debacle…) Gordon gives me the full tour, and explains how the primary tribes responsible for the real hanging coffins appear to have been wiped out as the result of some dynastic upheaval. This film marks the first time (I think) that they’ve provided the setting for an action sequence.

(I’m not a great believer in the supernatural, but every time I try to take a picture of the hanging coffins, the images on my camera are obscured by these silver discs, some of which seem have faces in them...)

I tell Gordon that we’re planning a Dragon Dynasty re-issue of his Fist Of Legend, and he promises to record a commentary with me. (You read it here first, folks…) I ask him where I can get a decent cup of coffee. Hangzhou Starbucks, he deadpans, five hour round trip. (It sounds like he’s been thinking about making it…)

Donnie Yen is setting up a scene in which he wields what looks like the exact same halberd that I froze my hands on in the props room. (I note he’s wearing gloves. Smart guy…) He moves with his usual expert grace, and seems oblivious to the arctic conditions. At his side is Li Sun (AKA Betty Sun), who played the blind girl in Jet Li’s Fearless. This time, she actually gets to go into action herself as a lady shaman. Surprisingly, Donnie has never before worked with Gordon Chan, but he and the film’s action director, Tung Wai, previously collaborated on the Dragon Dynasty hit Seven Swords. DP Arthur Wong, who just did such awesome work on Peter Chan’s Warlords, sits behind his monitor, looking simultaneously cold and cool. (I just wish I could manage that…)

I’d seen Donnie a week earlier at his daughter’s birthday party. Dressed in his vagabond warrior attire (‘I’m this films Johnny Depp’, observes, referencing the Jack Sparrow character from Pirates of the Caribbean.), he leads me to blessed warmth of his trailer (actually, his tent, this is a Chinese movie set, after all…). We discuss the plans for our upcoming Dragon Dynasty release of his film Flashpoint, and his hopes for the forthcoming ‘Yip Man’, a kung fu movie based on the life of the legendary Wing Chun kung fu master (and teacher of Bruce Lee). He tells me how much he’s enjoying working with Gordon Chan on Painted Skin. (I had previously tried to get the two together on the film 2000AD, back in my Media Asia days, but studio politics intervened.)

Donnie introduces me to Li Sun. ‘How are you?,’ she says. ‘Pleased to meet you.’ I ask her where she learned English. ‘I’m from Shanghai,’ she replies, clearly proud of her cosmopolitan home city. She tells me what a challenge it is performing martial arts movie action for the first time, especially opposite Donnie Yen. Tell me about it…, I mutter to myself.

Zhao Xun (star of The Banquet AKA Legend of the Black Scorpion) isn’t working today, so I don’t get to meet her. I do get to chat with the lovely Zhao Wei, AKA Vicki Zhao, best-known to international audiences for her role in Stephen Chiau’s Shaolin Soccer. Having shot a number of films in Hong Kong, this Wuhu-native speaks Cantonese as well as Mandarin, so we can converse in that language. Zhao just played a Mulan-style woman warrior in John Woo’s epic Red Cliff, which was, by all accounts, a long, tough shoot. Is Painted Skin an easier ride? ‘You can’t say that,’ she observes. ‘Every film with period costumes and action is very tough.” Especially when it’s this cold? “Definitely!”

I’ve almost frozen my blood checking out this Painted Skin, and I’ve only been there a day. I spare a prayer for the cast and crew labouring in the winter to blend horror and action for your entertainment. The weather report says it’s raining in Hong Kong, which means it isn’t freezing, which is just fine by me…


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