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Movie Reviews

Temptation Of A Monk (You Seng)  


Chinese Title: You Seng

Clara Law Director

Cast
Joan Chen........................ Princess Scarlet/Violet
Michael Lee...................... The Abbot
Lisa Lu .............................Shi's Mother
Wu Hsing-kuo.................... General Shi Yan-sheng
Zhang Fengyi.................... General Huo Da

Year of release: 1993

In the age of one of China’s most glorious dynasties, the Tang, a great general, Shi Yan-sheng is persuaded by another, Hou Da, to murder his lord. His guilty conscience (and his mother) forces him to execute Hou Da in revenge for this treasonous crime, which prompts Hou Da to reveal Shi’s complicity in the crime. Banished, Shi retreats to a monastery. However, being a proud and worldly man, he finds the life of humbleness and self-denial rather irritating and boring, more than once causing havoc in his disobedience of the head abbot. However, his past comes to haunt him, with the inevitable tragic consequences.

Lush and sensual, “Temptation of a Monk” is somewhat perplexing for me. The motivation of the characters seems rather strange, their puppet strings clumsily pulled by the whims of some unknown command, shallow yet mysterious at the same time. For me, Law’s work here shows similarity to various works of other Chinese directors, such as Chen Kaige or Zhang Yimou (whose epic historical dramas are preceded by this film), She seems to be making an attempt to prove herself as a director. I don’t know why she would need to, still, perhaps it’s like actors needing to prove they are “actors” by performing Shakespeare at least once in their lives (or in this era, to play a gay character with at least one homoerotic sex scene); so it is that Chinese directors need to scratch that itch to make an epic film set in China’s distant past with big swords, hair and high Shakespearean tragedy. Starting off with a large focus, halfway through the focus drops from the large canvas of wars and political intrigue, and onto the trials and tribulations of one man, causing a somewhat awkward shift in perspective and tone.

I am inclined to think that Law has strayed from what she does best, still, there’s no denying she’s made a jolly good and interesting bash at the historical epic genre. Weird costumes, knobbly headgear, harsh obtrusive makeup and fantastic colour-soaked scenes and generous application of filters create a weird surreal image of China that is almost unrecognizable as indigenously Chinese. All this doesn’t serve to bury the inconsistencies, confusion (Joan Chen appears twice in two roles, that as the runaway Tang princess who loves the general, and as an aristocratic widow who tempts him into what could really be his fatal last bonk) and obscure plotline of the movie, as we struggle to empathize with a fickle-minded man who’s fallen down so many times in his penance that you’d wonder why he bothers. All around the general, violence and sex swirl about him like giggling ghosts, staining his hands as fast as he could wash them. What this film is trying to say is ultimately lost. Law has made a valiant attempt to get there but doesn’t quite reach it.


Review by Eden.

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