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Movie Reviews

Temptress Moon (1996)  
Country: China
Director: Chen Kaige

Leslie Cheung - Yu Zhongliang
Gong Li - Pang Ruyi
Kevin Lin - Pang Duanwu
He Caifei - Yu Xiuyi

One thing I've discovered about my viewing habits is that I tend to like those films where a large part of the budget has gone into the production value, and where the cinematography presents a canvas stroked to ecstasy with every colour of the palette. Chen Kaige's "Temptress Moon" is one such film, where the costumes are impossibly crisp and whiter than white, and where a single candle flame seems imbued with the energy of a single nuclear reactor. It is a film whose incandescent scenery are matched by the rather convoluted soap opera-style plot, suffused and intoxicated by opium, an allegory of the addiction and corruption of all the characters within this film.

Leslie Cheung is Zhongliang, a famous and much sought-after gigolo working under the benevolence of a Shanghai crime boss who treats him like a son. He seduces rich, bored and lonely housewives who are then blackmailed into paying large sums of hush money. He is then ordered to seduce and swindle the mistress of the wealthy Pang family, Ruyi (Gong Li). At first reluctant, he returns to face his past, for he was once from this household, having being brought in to be a servant by his sister, who was married to the eldest son of this family. After some unspecified incident (which hints at forced incest) he had run away, later to be picked up by the Shanghai crime gang.

In this world of old money, tradition and ritual, the exposure to modern ideas, whether it comes in the form of the grown up Zhongliang in his Westernized clothing, or Ruyi's rebellion, in spite of her drug-addled condition, lays bare the rotten core of the old ways, corrupt, inflexible and blind. However, while Ruyi wants to escape to a better life, Zhongliang comes like a hot wind of vengeful fury, seeking to destroy everyone by manipulating emotions and humiliation like a weapon. As usual with a film like this, tragedy greets every wrong move, and the last angry act by Zhongliang serves to condemn them all.

Although there is some confusion about the reason, I think I can see why this film ran into censorship trouble with the Chinese censorship board. Still, the message is delivered in a very roundabout, somewhat ambiguous and artsy-fartsy way. The movie tends to move at the speed of maple syrup, accelerating during moments of high intensity and emotion, which is almost painful to watch. The plot's a little confusing, considering that the motivation for the characters aren't immediately apparent. Although I've said before that I like films that have pretty visuals, I can see the flaws in this film. In the end, one should just sit back and enjoy the Christopher Doyle's cinematography, which creates a moody, dreamlike atmosphere, charging everything with a sense of the dramatic. Leslie Cheung carries off the role of the dandy very well, a sort of feyness about him that is sensual and sexual… a bit queer actually, but it works. Gong Li's performance is a diluted by the fact that she had to look like a complete stoner most of the time, but her confusion sometimes works. For those who stick with it though, this film does have its rewards.

Eden Law

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