Temptation of a Monk

1993 Directed by Clara Law. Starring Wu Hsin-Kuo, Joan Chen, Zhang Fengyi.

REVIEWED By Joey O'Bryan, Fri., July 21, 1995

A masterful period drama with a touch of violent action, Temptation of a Monk is terrific, hypnotic entertainment, directed with uncompromising patience and skill by one of Hong Kong's few “arthouse” filmmakers -- Clara Law (Autumn Moon, Farewell China). Made during the height of 1994's seemingly endless string of lousy period-piece, martial-arts adventures, Law's film, along with Wong Kar-wei's Ashes of Time (although Law's work is far more accessible), manages to “intellectualize” the genre at the same time it manages to avoid pretension. Mainland actor Wu Hsin-kuo (who has, under the name Ng Hing-kwok, gone on to seek his fame in a number of great Hong Kong films, like the recent Rock and Roll Cop and What Price, Survival?) stars as Shi, a stoic warrior who, after being betrayed by an ambitious government official and duped into helping him take over the current regime, decides to hide up in a monastery with his comrades-in-arms, posing as a monk while secretly plotting their revenge. However, when he witnesses the deaths of his friends and his on-again, off-again love interest (Joan Chen) at the hands of government soldiers, Wu begins to truly long for a life of peace and becomes a member of an old, run-down monastery managed by an eccentric 100-year-old monk who has let his hair grow out and thinks reciting prayers make too much racket. For a while, he finds peace there, that is, until an old enemy from his past shows up (Farewell My Concubine's Zhang Fengyi), demanding a duel. Temptation of a Monk is a powerful movie, filled to the bursting point with sensuous atmosphere and populated with haunting images that linger in the imagination long after the picture has ended. Law's film is also aided greatly by Wu's carefully measured, virtuosic performance, which perfectly captures all the rage, inner turmoil, and genuine desire for change of his complex, ever-evolving character. Although the other performers don't have nearly as much to work with (Wu's performance more or less pulls the emotional weight of the entire show), the rest all manage solid turns, with Chen's free-spirited love interest being quite possibly the best of her (for the most part) undistinguished career. However, this is clearly Law's show, and her touch here is amazingly confident, deftly handling both quiet moments of understated dialogue and ultra-violet action sequences with equal ability. The latter comes off as a particular revelation, with both the large-scale battle sequences and small-scale kung-fu fights -- usually driven almost purely by Tals Lau's savage score -- showcasing an unusual mixture of brutal bloodletting and elegant, graceful movement.

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