Gong Li Shines in Sensual Epic Temptress Moon
Opium smoke -- or the suggestion of it -- permeates Chen Kaige Temptress Moon , a film on the scale of grand opera and melodramatic tragedy. It reveals the strife between many opposites -- men and women, East and West, old and new -- in a classic Yin-Yang movement. The opening scenes are a series of premonitions: the young girl Ruyi basks in the opium smoke her father blows around her. We don't see him, yet we hear his praise, Opium is the source of all inspiration, and see her enshrouded, taking a deep breath. She then wreaks havoc among the concubines mah-jongg tables, symbolic of what she'll do to them later, pulling down tablecloths and causing avalanches of mah-jongg tiles. This is the extended house of Pang, an old-fashioned dynastic household isolated from both urban life and Western influence, where women cannot be head of household alone, nor can they enter the Great Hall, which Ruyi does with abandon. Ruyi is joined in her play by her doting cousin, Duanwu, and an outsider, Zhongliang, Ruyi's newly arrived brother-in-law, who usually causes chaos everywhere he goes. Each child is an archetype for a vastly changing China. The year is 1911, and the Emperor, to the horror of clan Pang, has abdicated 2000 years of dynastic rule in favor of a republic. The next ten years will alter not only China, but the entire world, in ways no one expected. But at the Pang household, tradition reigns. Surrounded by water, the Pangs live languorously; the place is enshrouded in blue mist, centuries-old bonsais grace secret inner courtyards, ancestors get plenty of worship in a permanent twilight. Brought to the household as an orphan, with aspirations to become a student in Peking someday, Zhongliang ends up being a servant to his sister and her husband, Zhengda, whose opium habit needs constant attention. Bitterness turns to revenge when the couple, after a night of indulging, make the young Zhongliang kiss his sister, and possibly more, to make him a man. Ten years later, we find him sharp and snappy in a Westernized, black-market Shanghai, where he works for the local mafia boss and is a master at what he does: seduce wealthy women only to blackmail them later. His heart is hardened, except for the woman on Heavenly Lane. As Kaige moves back and forth between the future (Shanghai) and the past (the Pang estate), the mood shifts considerably. But even as Kaige balances concepts, sights and sounds are also contra-indicated. Visually lyrical and misty, the film seems to move in slow motion, whereas the sound is harsh, staccato, dissonant. Zhongliang doesn't just bend or turn, he reels and wheels in abrupt, loud movements. Things are always breaking around him, including hearts. Back at the Pang estate, Old Master Pang has died, and since his son, Zhengda, is a living ghost, having been poisoned by arsenic in his opium, the Pang elders reluctantly make Ruyi in charge. Though a fine young woman, she has an opium habit that prevents her from marrying "I am poisoned," she says. Ruyi needs a man to help her rule the household. The boy the elders mistakenly believe "has nothing to gain, and everything to lose," Duanwu, is chosen. Ruyi, played by the incomparable Gong Li, is a complex character. Though naive, her first act as ruler of the house of Pang is to fire all the concubines, many of whom had lived there all their lives. She is calm and deep-watered and still, the opposite of Zhongliang (Leslie Cheung) who is a whirling dervish with edges that cut. Duanwu (Kevin Lin) grows from a love-sick boy (who claims he doesn't even want to be a man), into a schemer waiting for his turn. When the card-sharking Zhongliang returns to the Pang estate for less than noble reasons, his presence unhinges his sister, whose emotions run the extremes and ultimately changes the house of Pang forever. It doesn't take long for Ruyi to fall for him, and to essentially give up her power. For her, love is natural and full of faith. For him, love is a curse. And returning to this blue womb of strange desires has a powerful effect on him. A beautiful film with a dark undercurrent, Temptress Moon is a lovely tragedy; after the last opium pipe is smoked, nothing will ever be the same again.