One of the major Chinese productions of 2008 was《Hua Pi》画皮 (Painted Skin), nominated for two Asian Film Awards, and Hong Kong's entry for Oscar consideration. "Painted Skin" is just the latest in a long line of theatrical releases, TV movies and miniseries which have drawn on that rich source of material, the classic (and massive) Qing dynasty collection of short stories, Liaozhai Zhiyi 聊斋志异 ("Strange Stories from Liaozhai"). Liaozhai (meaning "make-do") being author Pu Songling's name for his work studio. Most of these are tales of the supernatural, relating the interactions of humans with ghosts, fox-spirits, flower fairies, etc.
The first of the Shanghai feature-length screen adaptations of one of the 491 "Strange Stories" was《Ma Jiefu》, a 1926 production which, while staying close to its literary source, set it in the present, in modern dress. It was one of the first productions by the new studio formed by the merger of Baihe and Da Zhonghua, and one of its more successful.
Ma Jiefu (1926) 马介甫 (Ma Jiefu)
Dazhonghua Baihe. B&W. Silent. 11 reels. Direction and Screenplay: Zhu Shouju, from an original story by Pu Songling 蒲松龄 (1640-1715). Cinematography: Zhou Shimu, Yu Shengsan. English program notes: Xu Weiming. Chinese program notes: Zhang Weitian. Cast: Wang Naidong (Ma Jiefu), Wang Jinming (Ma's wife), Zhou Wenzhu (Madam Yin), Zhang Qingsheng (Father Yang), Zhang Fufeng (Yang Wanzhong), Yang Jingwo (Wanzhong's wife), Mei Maozhen (Wanzhong's son), Zhao Jinghua (the Yangs' maid), Mr. Weiwei (Yang Wanshi), Xie Yunqing (the butcher), Wang Xiuying (the matchmaker).
A man named Yang Wanshi is married to Madame Yin, a shrewish woman who henpecks her husband and mistreats her father-in-law. When Ma Jiefu, an old friend of Wanshi's younger brother Wanzhong arrives on a visit, Wanzhong hosts a welcoming banquet for him, and invites Wanshi to dine and drink with them. But shortly into the dinner Madame Yin unexpectedly bursts in, loudly berating her husband and causing the party to break up early.
[Madame Yin (Zhou Wenzhu) eyes her husband suspiciously]
The next day, Wanzhong calls on his friend to offer apologize for the incident. But Jiefu, a man with a strong sense of courtesy and propriety, is still unsatisfied with the woman's behavior and attitude toward the men in her family. So he has Wanzhong get his elder brother away from his home, and while Madame Yin is alone, Jiefu bursts in disguised as a demon and threatens to take her back to the nether world with him. Trembling with fear, she promises to change her ways, so he lets her go. When Wanshi and Wanzhong get home, she is totally changed from the harpy she had been, and is attentive and deferential. Wanshi is delighted to see his wife become an entirely different person, although he doesn't know the reason behind it. The next day, Madame Yin invites her father-in-law to sit at the seat of honor at the table, offers a toast to her own repentance, and even makes some new clothes for him.
[right, Ma Jiefu (Wang Naidong) tells the Yang brothers his views]
A few days later, the brothers have dinner with Ma Jiefu, who under the influence of too much wine, reveals to Wanshi what happened that night. Wanshi, who has also drunk too much, goes home and tells his wife the whole story, infuriating her. She reverts to her old character and grabs a knife, intending to attack her husband. But the father-in-law tries to intervene, causing her to divert her fury to him, screaming at him about having fed and clothed him. Crazed with rage, she demands he take off the new clothes. Unable to bear her violent tirade any longer, Wanzhong strikes her with his fist, knocking her unconscious. His brother, thinking his wife is dead, demands Wanzhong atone with his own life. Wanzhong looks to the sky and declares, "Although I regret my own death I have no regrets over taking her life, for it saved my family". Having said, this Wanzhong dies. After a little while, Madame Yin regains consciousness.
Wanzhong's grieving widow, with no other way of supporting her son and herself, sells herself to be another man's concubine and leaves the child to eke out a meager existence with her father-in-law. A fortune teller gives Ma Jiefu a potion which will make a husband more assertive. Jiefu compels Wanshi to take it, and it works for a while: Wanshi goes home and makes Madame Yin kowtow and beg forgiveness for her role in Wanzhong's death. But the potion soon wears off, and when his wife sees her husband reverting to his former self, she makes him tell her about Ma Jiefu and the potion. To get back at her husband by humilating him, Madame Yin makes Wanshi dress in woman's clothes. Jiefu, sadly deciding that Wanshi is a hopeless wimp, takes the Yang's father and Wanzhong's son into his own home.
When a fire destroys the Yang couple's home, they move into an inn, where Madame Yin meets another guest, a matchmaker. Deciding her current life is too unreliable, she hires the matchmaker to find her another husband. She leaves Wanshi and goes off with the new man, a butcher. But he turns out to be the complete opposite of Wanshi, an ill-tempered, violent man who curses and beats her frequently. Now realizing her own past mistakes, Madame Yin goes to a temple to burn joss sticks and confess, and while she is there she encounters Ma Jiefu, Yang Wanshi, Father Yang and Wanzhong's son, also coming to worship. Even now, as they part, Wanshi is reluctant to say goodbye. Madame Yin returns home, heartsick at the turn her life has taken. She is so distracted she pays no heed to the butcher's orders, which so angers him he beats her to death.