Temptress Moon

on June 13, 1997 by Wade Major
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   "If only we didn't have to grow up, everything would be perfect," says Leslie Cheung's character in "Temptress Moon," a reference not just to the story's complex and often confusing character relationships but to China itself. It's as a metaphor for China's often turbulent struggle with modernization that "Temptress Moon"--a tragic tone-poem cutting to the heart and soul of a nation's identity--works best.
   In many ways, Chen Kaige's follow-up to his "Farewell My Concubine" is a more daring effort than anything the famed Chinese stylist has done. It's also, unfortunately, one of his more narratively muddled ones. Reteaming Chen with "Concubine" stars Cheung and Gong Li, "Temptress Moon" tells the story of a 1920s-era Shanghai hustler named Zhongliang (Cheung) ordered by his "boss" to return to the Pang family compound where, as a boy, Zhongliang suffered humiliation and abuse at the hands of his sister's (He Saifei) opium-addicted husband Zhengda (Zhou Yemang), the Pang family heir.
   When the time comes, however, the brain-dead Zhengda is unable to assume the mantle of family leadership, forcing his sister Ruyi (Gong Li) to take charge instead. It's under these circumstances that Zhongliang is sent back to seduce Ruyi as a prelude to kidnapping and ransom. But the mission is not so easily accomplished. Long-forgotten memories and family secrets return like a fever, shaking Zhongliang's increasingly conflicted conscience and hurtling the would-be lovers toward their inescapable fate.
   From a purely technical standpoint, "Temptress Moon" is one of the most beautiful films ever made. Together with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Chen has spun a magnificently seductive fever-dream torn from the characters' own opium-induced delirium. Dollies, cranes and steadicams navigate the labyrinthine world of colonial Shanghai with acrobatic agility, underscoring Ruyi's and Zhongliang's seemingly endless search for stability and equilibrium. But the maze-like plotting often works against the film, veering into so many tangential subplots and peripheral events that the point of it all often seems lost. To Chen's credit, such shortcomings don't ultimately sabotage his message or lessen its visceral impact. If only the story as a whole had been as meticulously conceived and executed as its climax, Chen might well have found himself the recipient of a second Palmed'Or.
   Still banned in China for its rather explicit treatment of sex and opium addiction, "Temptress Moon" is ultimately less shocking than provocative by American standards. At once compelling, disturbing, challenging and beguiling, it's unlikely any two people will see or read "Temptress Moon" in quite the same way. And that might be the whole point.    Starring Leslie Cheung, Gong Li, Kevin Lin and He Saifei. Directed by Chen Kaige. Written by Shu Kei. Produced by Tong Cunlin and Hsu Feng. A Miramax release. Drama. Chinese-language; English subtitles. Rated R for some intense images of sexuality and opium use. Running time: 115 min
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