1996, R, 119 min. Directed by Chen Kaige. Starring Leslie Cheung, Gong Li, Kevin Lin, He Saifei, Zhang Shi, Lin Lianqun, Ge Xiangting, Xie Tian, David Wu, Zhou Jie, Zhou Yemang, Ren Lei.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 4, 1997
Set against the blustering, turn-of-the-century opium trade in China, Chen's newest film resonates on enough levels to satisfy everyone from the hardcore China enthusiast to fans of Melrose Place. Especially fans of Melrose Place. While not nearly as sinuously fluid as Chen's 1993 breakthrough, Farewell My Concubine, Temptress Moon is nonetheless one of the most gorgeously lavish Chinese productions in some time, much of which is due to cinematographer Christopher Doyle's opulent handiwork and a pair of brilliant performances from Gong and Cheung, the Asian Streep and De Niro. As the film opens, it's 1911, and the ancient dynasties that have controlled China for centuries are coming to a close under the thumb of British gunboat diplomacy. Near Shanghai, at the estate of the Pang family, a young orphan, Zhongliang (Ren), comes to live with his sister Xuiyi (He) and brother-in-law Zhengda (Zhou). There, he carefully fills and refills their opium pipes while trying to maintain an air of scholarship. Studies are impossible, though, amidst the dank clouds of narcotics, and before long, Zhongliang is forced into a bitter, incestuous relationship. Despite the friendship of young Ruyi (Gong) and Duanwu (Lin), Zhongliang flees to Shanghai one night and throws himself into an underworld of petty crime, prostitution, and easy money. Taken in by a benevolent gangster boss, Zhongliang is ordered one day to return to the Pang estate -- now but a shadow of its former glory -- to seduce the now grown Ruyi (Gong), the family's sole remaining heir. Against his better judgment, the now-adult Zhongliang (Cheung) finds himself falling in love with Ruyi while all about them crumbles. Essentially a Shakespearean tragedy masquerading as a Chinese period piece, Temptress Moon is a marvel to behold. All three leads, Gong, Cheung, and Lin turn in blazing performances, packed with bitter, endless defeats both in and out of the bedroom. Chen's film moves at the stately, leisurely pace you'd expect from a story dealing with a crumbling dynasty, but once the seeds of destruction are set in motion, the film fairly hurtles inexorably towards its dark, soulless conclusion, grabbing the audience with Doyle's breathtaking camerawork (he also did Chungking Express) and, especially, Cheung's tortuous performance as the doomed Zhongliang. The analogies to modern-day China fly thick and fast in Temptress Moon but never detract from the universality of the story. The cruel destruction of bitter hearts and innocent lives, plus opium wars to boot… what more could you ask for?