By Mary Dickson
JULY 28, 1997: Chen Kaige's astonishingly beautiful film opens and closes with the faces of three innocent young children whose desires, destinies and ultimate destruction will be inextricably intertwined.
Kaige, who directed Farewell My Concubine and Yellow Earth, once again crafts a sumptuous tragedy that spans the decades. The Chinese filmmaker is a master storyteller, and Temptress Moon is impeccably told. Called a "poetic melodrama," Kaige's film is filled with intrigue, betrayal, incest and revenge.
The story begins in 1911 as the old regime has been overthrown in China and replaced by a republic. On the very night the news breaks, a young boy named Zhongliang is summoned by his sister, Xiuyi, to the palatial country estate of the wealthy Pang family, a place of opium-addled decadence.
Xiuyi has married Zhengda, heir to the Pang family fortune. Zhongliang hopes to become a student and contribute to the new social movements of the day, but when he arrives at the Pang Estate, he discovers that he is to be his sister's full-time servant. His primary function is to prepare the opium for her and her landed husband.
Zhongliang, who resents their wealth and cruelty, despises being treated like a member of the lower classes. One evening, when Zhengda, high on opium, forces Zhongliang to kiss his sister, the incestuous act triggers a chain of events that will undo them all.
Kaige's well-shaded tale then moves ahead 10 years to the glittering metropolis of Shanghai, a corrupt city immersed in the corruption of the jazz age. Now a grown man, the handsome Zhongliang (Leslie Cheung) is working for Shanghai's most powerful crime family. His primary assignment is to seduce wealthy married women so that the Mafia can step in and blackmail them. Zhongliang is little more than a high-priced and very glamorous gigolo in the scam, but he learns his craft well.
Meanwhile, Old Master Pang has died, and the Pang estate has been turned over to Zhengda's beautiful sister, Ruyi (Gong Li), because Zhengda is paralyzed and brain-damaged. Entrusting the family dynasty to a woman is worrisome for the elders, who assign a distant cousin, Duanwu, to assist Ruyi in her duties. They reason that since Duanwu is not a close relative, he can't have any aspirations for power of his own. His loyalties are strictly to Ruyi. He not only becomes her devoted servant, but falls in love with her.
When the Shanghai boss assigns Zhongliang to return to the Pang estate to seduce Ruyi, the assignment fills Zhongliang with dread. Not only is it a painful reminder of his early servitude, but he dreads an encounter with his sister, who, for the past 10 years, has endured a life of excruciating loneliness with only her brain damaged husband and two goldfish for company. Desperate for deliverance from her doomed existence, she looks to her brother for rescue. She blames Zhongliang for destroying her because of "the awful thing that happened that night."
Zhongliang's immediate task, however, is to seduce the beautiful Pang heiress, which turns out not to be a very difficult assignment. Ruyi soon falls in love with the dashing Zhongliang. He also finds himself falling in love with her.
Temptress Moon ends, as do so many of Kaige's film, as a grand tragedy in the operatic tradition. The stunning cinematography by Australian Christopher Doyle gives the film its unforgettable ethereal quality.
Banned in China for its erotic content and its allusions to contemporary politics, Temptress Moon is a powerful psychological drama marked by stellar performances. Gong Li's deceptively serene face is always a visual delight. Leslie Cheung as Zhongliang offers a standout performance, perfectly expressing his character's divided heart. Also exceptional is Kevin Lin as the trustworthy Duanwu who wants desperately both to protect Ruyi and to "win at love." They all convey the confusion, the pain and shattered dreams of a tormented people.
While the story can be occasionally hard to follow, Kaige skillfully ties everything together in the end, revealing and repeating the terrible secret of "the awful thing that happened that night." It's the kind of film that merits a second viewing to notice the telling details that too easily may be missed the first time around.
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