August 8, 1997 in Seven

Desires Bring Misfortune In ‘Temptress Moon’

By The Spokesman-Review
 

So, let’s see now. We have pre-revolutionary China (primarily the 1920s), gangsters, the demise of great families, frustrated love and the corruption of innocence.

Oh, and don’t forget sudden death.

Sounds like “Shanghai Triad,” right?

Yes, it does. But if that was your guess, you get no cigar. “Temptress Moon,” the new film by Chen Kaige (“Farewell My Concubine”), is a variation on the same themes explored by Zhang Yimou’s “Shanghai Triad.”

At the same time, it is something completely different.

That something revolves around three characters. Zhongliang (Leslie Cheung) is the country boy invited to the big city to serve the husband of his sister (He Saifei). Specifically, he is meant to prepare the man’s opium, but he is used in other ways, too, until he opts to run away and, ultimately, become a betrayer himself. His professional specialty: women.

The other two principals hail from the same estate. Pang Ruyi (Gong Li) is the young woman who, upon her master’s death, becomes the head of household - an uncommon occurrence for a mere female, as she is repeatedly told. But she is aided in her struggle against the powerful servants and advisers by her adoring cousin (Kevin Lin), whose own desires ultimately lead to unfortunate circumstances.

In fact, desires seem actually to lead nowhere else but to unfortunate circumstances. For when Zhongliang is dispatched by his gangster boss back to the household, his mission being to seduce Ruyi and take over the family fortune, he is forced to face the demons of his past.

Those demons, so strong and murderous, ultimately infect everyone they touch. “Temptress Moon” ends on a note that is only slightly less desolate than the dark side of - what else? - the moon.

They even infect the performances. Gong, one of the world’s great beauties, does credibly. But Cheung, maybe best known for working with action director John Woo in “A Better Tomorrow” and its sequel, overacts to the point of occasional ludicrousness.

Yet if overheated acting and a sense of hopelessness were all that director Chen’s film had to offer, it would still be worth watching. All the main characters, in their various bumbling ways, are trying to overcome the emotional wounds of their childhoods. And given the similarities with “Shanghai Triad,” it’s intriguing to speculate what these directors are trying to say about a modern China that still makes it a habit of banning any film (such as “Temptress Moon”) that doesn’t receive official government approval.

And even if Chen conveys a fatalistic view of life, the way in which he portrays it is, in itself, a thing of beauty. Photographed by Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Chen’s latest work is a visual delight.

So, yes, there have been better Chinese films than this one. In the end, though, that is more a statement about the high quality of contemporary Chinese cinema in general than it is a condemnation of “Temptress Moon.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “TEMPTRESS MOON” **-1/2 Locations: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Chen Kaige, starring Leslie Cheung, Gong Li, Kevin Lin, He Saifei, David Wu Running time: 2:10 Rating: R Subtitled: Mandarin with English subtitles

This sidebar appeared with the story: “TEMPTRESS MOON” **-1/2 Locations: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Chen Kaige, starring Leslie Cheung, Gong Li, Kevin Lin, He Saifei, David Wu Running time: 2:10 Rating: R Subtitled: Mandarin with English subtitles


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