In contrast to her contempo “Autumn Moon,” which made its mark on the international fest circuit, Hong Kong director Clara Law’s latest, “Temptation of a Monk,” is a visually bold saga of rival generals, revenge, betrayal and love, handled with skill and excitement. With the current surge of interest in Chinese cinema, this one could gain acceptance by specialized auds worldwide.
Film has a different look from most Hong Kong period pics. Law used an Australian camera team,led by d.p. Andrew Lesnie, whose use of filters gives an unusual sheen. Costumes and staging also evoke Japanese samurai movies rather than H.K. martial arts epics.
Set during the Tang dynasty over a thousand years ago, story has as its theme a disgraced man’s journey into self-discovery.
Central character, General Shi (Wu Hsin-kuo), finds himself in a dilemma when the old emperor is close to death: The heir to the throne is perceived to be weak; his brother would be a stronger ruler.
Shi cuts a deal with fellow general Huo (Zhang Fengyi, who played the macho actor in Chen Kaige’s “Farewell My Concubine”), but the unscrupulous Huo, instead of protecting the rightful heir, oversees a massacre of the prince and his men.
The disgraced Shi takes refuge first with his mother (veteran Lisa Lu, in a striking cameo) and, after she commits suicide, with Princess Scarlet (Joan Chen), who falls victim to a violent encounter with Huo. Shi decides on the monastic life and winds up serving an elderly abbot in a dilapidated mountain-top temple.
In one of the film’s most striking scenes, a beautiful assassin (also played by Chen) is sent to eliminate Shi. Posing as a nun, she has her head shaved before seducing him in a weirdly erotic sequence just prior to her assassination attempt. This is kinky stuff. Pic ends with the inevitable confrontation between Shi and Huo.
Shot on remote locations in mainland China in wintry conditions, “Monk” boasts strong characters, bold performances (Chen is good in both her roles), sumptuous costumes and settings, and vivid action with lots of slo-mo battles.
Editing by Aussie Jill Bilcock, who cut “Strictly Ballroom,” is slick, and the sound mix (also by Aussies) excellent.