At times, Chinese filmmakers Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou seem almost interchangeable.
Certainly Zhang and Chen, two of China’s most original cinematic voices, are contemporaries. Certainly they both use the talents of Chinese actress Gong Li. And certainly they tend to explore the same themes of frustrated love, betrayal, political oppression and the importance of tenacity.
Nowhere are their individual styles more on display than in two specific films, one of which - “Temptress Moon” - is available on video this week.
The other, “Shanghai Triad,” is Zhang’s 1995 offering that was nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar.
What’s interesting, though, is how similar the two films are. In terms of theme, in fact, the two are virtually identical.
Here are what the two have in common: a pre-revolutionary setting (1920s), suit-wearing gangsters, the loss of power traditionally held by great families, greed, sexual obsession, sexual politics and the ultimate corruption of innocence, all seen through the eyes of the children.
But there’s this, too: Both fall short of the quality attained in previous films by both directors.
In particular, “Temptress Moon” tells the story of three characters whose early life is set in a grand estate. Zhongliang (Leslie Cheung) is brought to the estate by his sister, and it is there that he endures the initial emotional betrayal that then becomes his life’s work.
Meanwhile, Pang Ruyi (Gong Li) takes control of the household when her husband dies. Since such power is handed to a woman only rarely, she ends by being aided her adoring cousin (played by Kevin Lin).
Ultimately, all three fall prey to their desires - Zhongliang to his need for love, Pang and her cousin for their own bonding needs. Inner demons, the kind that emanate from early childhood nightmares, prove fatal to them all.
There is no hope in “Temptress Moon,” just as there is no feeling of redemption in “Shanghai Triad.” Characters struggle, characters overreach, characters fall from grace and characters get devoured by Darwinistic forces.
It’s the predominance of those forces, which for China included Mao and his horde of social engineers, that provide the films of Chen and Zhang their stark power. Considering how hard it’s been to get their films shown at home, it’s no wonder that both seem driven to pursue a cinema that’s as representative of great style as it is an exploration of suppressed hope.
Chen Kaige (b. 1952), a partial filmography:
“Temptress Moon” (1996)
“Farewell My Concubine” (1993)
“Life on a String” (1990)
“Yellow Earth” (1989)
Zhang Yimou (b. 1950), a partial filmography:
“Shanghai Triad” (1996)
“To Live” (1994)
“Raise the Red Lantern” (1991)
“The Story of Qiu Ju” (1991)
“Ju Dou” (1990)
“Red Sorghum” (1987)
The week’s major releases:
Career Girls ***-1/2
Mike Leigh (“Secrets & Lies”) returns with this look at two young English women struggling with the life/job thing. Cutting back and forth in time, from the moment the women meet as college flatmates to a reunion six years after graduation, Leigh allows his protagonists ample room to shine. In fact, the storyline is fairly simple - over the weekend reunion they reminisce, together and privately, about their relationship, the friends they left behind and the men who left them. The drawback is a plot that relies too heavily on coincidence to propel the narrative. What makes the movie special, however, is how Katrin Cartlidge (“Naked,” “Breaking the Waves”) and Lynda Steadman manage to give their respective characters distinct personalities that evolve yet remain recognizable. As a study of character and human interplay, “Career Girls” - if you can understand the thick accents - is a short course in cinema as psychology. Rated R
Children of the Revolution ***
Fueled by the trademark intensity of Judy Davis, this Australian production is an exercise in political irony. It involves a Communist of the old school (Davis), a woman so enthralled by Joseph Stalin that she can’t believe her fortune at being invited to meet the Soviet despot. That meeting ends up changing her life (as well as his), but it does nothing to quell her Socialist leanings. She merely transfers her devotion to her son, who grows up to bear an uncanny resemblance to - well, guess.
Written and directed by Peter Duncan, “Children of the Revolution” is hampered only by a closing half that forsakes humor for heavy-handedness. But the work of Davis, Sam Neill, Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush (“Shine”) and especially Richard Roxburgh as the son, are just compensation. Rated R
Picture Perfect **-1/2
To get a better job and the man of her dreams, a young woman (Jennifer Aniston) creates a shady past for herself that includes a (fake) fiance. The fantasy comes back to bite her when her mother (Olympic Dukakis) and co-workers want to meet the guy. He turns out to be Jay Mohr (of “Jerry Maguire” fame), a decent kind of guy who, naturally, Aniston doesn’t find the least bit interesting. At first.
Basically an extended TV sitcom (which is not surprising as it was directed by Glen Gordon Caron), “Picture Perfect” proves two things: the “Friends” cast is still without a hit big-screen feature, and Mohr is a pretty good actor. Rated R
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