Though it reunites two of the leads from his previous film, Chen Kaige’s period meller Temptress Moon is a very different cup of cha from his fresco-esque, history-laden showpiece Farewell My Concubine. An emotionally complex look at a young gigolo’s obsession with the daughter of a wealthy, decaying family, Moon is a visually intoxicating but much darker work.
Pic was conceived as a relatively low-budget affair, entirely set in the household of the extended family; it ended up with a tab of more than $7 million, about double that of Concubine. Original femme lead, Taiwanese unknown Wang Ching-ying, was fired halfway through shooting in fall 1994 and production shut down for five months before resuming in April ’95, with Gong Li assuming the role.
Opening reels immediately establish the sumptuous-looking, slightly woozy atmosphere that permeates the pic. Flash forward to the ’20s, and Zhongliang (Leslie Cheung) is a smooth, blackmailing gigolo in glitzy, decadent Shanghai, not far from the Pang household in Suzhou. Treated almost as a son by his Mafioso boss (Xie Tian), Zhongliang occasionally steals away for secret R&R in the arms of an older woman (Zhou Jie), the only one for whom he feels any warmth.
Meanwhile, at the Pangs’ his cousin Ruyi (Gong Li) has effectively taken over as head of the household following the death of the clan elder. Titular management of the household is given to a distant cousin, Duanwu (Kevin Lin), who immediately falls for his beautiful, remote relative. When Zhongliang, at his boss’ urging, visits Suzhou, the wheels are set in motion for an obsessive love affair to develop between him and Ruyi.
At around the one-hour mark, the picture starts to lose momentum. Gong rarely uncovers the heart of the role, looking a tad too old and composed for the part. Cheung, however, is excellent, moving between his confident gigolo and emotion-wracked lover with ease.
[In the US and UK, pic showed in a 127-min. fine cut by the director.]