Friday June 13, 1997
When Kaige's exquisite yet harrowing "Temptress Moon" takes us into chaotic China in its transitional 1920s to spin a heady tale of love and revenge as the worlds of the Shanghai underworld collide with that of a decaying ancient noble family, sealed off in its vast country estate.
Thirteen-year-old Zhongliang, orphaned in the revolution as it swept over Shanghai, arrives at the ancient palatial estate of the Pangs in the countryside outside Shanghai, at the invitation of his sister (Zhang Shi), the wife of the Young Master Pang (Zhou Yemang).
Eager to participate in the new society that will be emerging after 2,000 years of imperial rule, Zhongliang has dreams of going to Beijing and becoming a scholar. Although he sometimes has the chance to play with Ruyi, the Young Master's younger sister, and her cousin Duanwu, he has been forced to become a servant, a slave even, to his sister and brother-in-law, a dedicated smoker of opium. When his brother-in-law eventually expects the boy to participate in erotic fun and games, something happens behind closed doors that propels Zhongliang back to Shanghai, where we catch up with him 10 years later.
We are left to imagine how Zhongliang (Leslie Cheung) has survived during this period. But when we meet him again, the '20s are roaring through glamorous, corrupt Shanghai's gaudy, neon-lit avenues, and he has become the sleekest, most debonair of gigolos, an expert at blackmailing women for his deeply paternal boss (Xie Tien), a loving but diabolical underworld kingpin whose favorite he has become. "Temptress Moon" really gets underway when the boss orders Zhongliang to lure Ruyi (Gong Li), now head of the Pang family, to Shanghai as part of some undisclosed plan to grab what's left--which seems considerable--of the Pang fortune.
At this point, the world of "Shanghai Triad" collides with that of "Raise the Red Lantern"--films directed by China's other leading director, Zhang Yimou--as the cynical young gangster zeros in on the innocent, though headstrong, heiress, who has never been anywhere and never expects to go anywhere. Zhongliang remains consumed with rage over his treatment by the Pangs, and, given his acquired expertise in seduction, has no trouble bewitching Ruyi.
What Zhongliang doesn't count upon is the impact of this ravishingly beautiful innocent upon him, setting in motion a tug-of-war between two proud, willful individuals--think of Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck in "Duel in the Sun."
What's crucial here is that Chen, who previously teamed Cheung and Gong in his epic "Farewell My Concubine," has been able to transform the emotional extravagance of melodrama into an eloquent romantic tragedy in which we can perceive an entire society undergoing wrenching change. If Ruyi and Zhongliang are on the one hand the pawns of fate, they nonetheless are able to exercise their freedom to make drastic choices.
Clearly, Chen wants us to see in "Temptress Moon" a timeless parable of circumstance and choice that applies to modern China as well as its own traumatic transitional era. At the same time, the film works very well as a singularly tempestuous period tale, churning with danger, adventure and steamy passion.
This is an absolutely gorgeous-looking film, beautifully photographed (by Australia's Christopher Doyle) amid fabulous settings and accompanied by a grand romantic score. Gong deftly creates Ruyi as a stunning enigma, while the protean Cheung once again summons that full range of emotions that also charged "Farewell My Concubine."
A final note: As has been the fate of so many films made by major Chinese directors, "Temptress Moon" remains banned in China.
Temptress Moon, 1997. R, for some intense images of sexuality and opium use. A Miramax presentation. Director Chen Kaige. Producers Tong Cunlin, Hsu Feng. Executive producer Sunday Sun. Screenplay by Shu Kei; from a story by Chen Kaige, Wang Anyi. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Editor Pei Xiaonan. Costumes William Chang Suk-ping, Chen Changmin. Music Zhao Jiping. Art director Huang Qiagui. Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes. Leslie Cheung as Yu Zhongliang. Gong Li as Pang Ruyi. Kevin Lin as Pang Duanwu. He Saifei as Yu Xiuyi.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times