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 that looks likely to attract a more select clientele than the more welcoming “Concubine.”
Pic was conceived as a relatively low-budget affair, entirely set in the household of the extended family; however, it ended up with a tab of more than $ 7 million, about double that of “Concubine.” Shooting went through equally dramatic changes, with the original femme lead, Taiwanese unknown Wang Ching-ying, fired halfway through shooting in fall 1994 and production shutting down for five months before resuming in April ’95 with Gong Li assuming the role. Like “Concubine,” the pic looks set to have a stormy passage in China, where it was shot near Shanghai. Originally viewed by the Film Bureau (the country’s censor) some months ago and passed for export, pic has just been officially banned within China, a move that reflects recent changes in personnel at the bureau.
Opening reels immediately establish the sumptuous-looking, slightly woozy atmosphere that permeates the pic. Opening on the eve of the 1911 Revolution, when imperial China became a republic, the camera lingers on the face of a young , opium-addicted girl who slowly smiles at the audience. This is Ruyi, scion of the wealthy Pang clan.
Her young cousin, Zhongliang, arrives from the provinces and is treated almost like a servant by the family — and even by his elder sister Xiuyi, who’s married to the clan’s elder son.
Zhongliang nonetheless develops a kiddie crush on the playful, enigmatic girl. Finally, in unexplained circumstances, the teenage Zhongliang flees for Beijing to start a new life, leaving his sister to cope with her husband, now paralyzed and brain-dead from opium.
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). Meanwhile, at the Pangs’, Ruyi (Gong Li) has effectively taken over as head of the household following the death of the clan elder. Because she’s female, 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.
Pic’s first half-hour is a visual and emotional roller coaster that’s among the finest work that Chen has done, with fluid use of Steadicam, resonant music and spectacular use of light and shade by lenser Christopher Doyle that establishes twin universes: the shadowy, decaying Pang household and colorful, corrupt Shanghai. With subtle use of a variety of lenses, Doyle’s cinematography also gives an off-center feel to the action without resorting to excessive distortion. For Western auds, however, there’s a lot to take in, not least the complex web of relationships.
It’s soon clear that pure storytelling is the least of the pic’s concerns; Chen’s approach goes back to his artier ’80s fare like “Yellow Earth” and “King of the Children,” where atmosphere and spirit of place took precedence over nuts-and-bolts narrative.
“Moon” is a movie of moods and feelings, the celluloid equivalent of a light opium dream in which small details (a pilfered earring, the feel and color of fabrics, close-ups of hands and feet) are charged with importance.
At around the one-hour mark, however, with all the protagonists in place and an emotional quartet established among Zhongliang, Ruyi, Duanwu and Xiuyi, the picture starts to lose momentum. The movie regains its footing in the final stages, but the script’s unsteady second act exposes an emotional coolness at the heart of the movie that makes it difficult to become as enraptured with the characters as they clearly are with one another.
In the difficult role of Ruyi, Gong terrifically fulfills her duties as a female icon (from her first, unforgettable entrance 20 minutes in) but rarely uncovers the heart of the role. Looking a tad too old and composed for the part, it’s hard to equate her with the almost devilish, opium-wracked girl we see at the very beginning.
Cheung, however, is excellent as Zhongliang, moving between his confident gigolo and emotion-wracked lover with ease. As his neurotic, waspish elder sister, He (the venomous third wife in “Raise the Red Lantern”) is at her best when emoting least. Taiwanese actor Lin is OK as Duanwu but is hampered by an underwritten role.
Tech credits are aces, from Huang Qiagui’s spectacular re-creation of downtown ’20s Shanghai to the use of various locations for the Pang household. William Chang’s costumes have an almost sensual feel for color and fabric that chimes well with the movie’s intent. Most of all, however, the pic belongs to Aussie-born lenser Christopher Doyle who, after a decade of sterling work for the top names in the offshore Chinese industry, surely now must be poised for the international big time.