Temptress Moon (1996)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2008-10-27
“Temptress Moon” stars two of the most gorgeous movie actors of the past 50 and was shot by one of the most accomplished cinematographers ever to look through a lens. With Gong Li, Leslie Cheung and Christopher Doyle a movie can’t fail to look great; the story however is little more than a tragic family melodrama. Chen Kaige wrings every bit of bathos from the overwrought script, never settling for a character being merely unhappy when he can reach for complete misery.

Leslie Cheung never looked more enticing which suited his role as a gigolo working for a Shanghai gang that blackmailed wealthy married women. We know almost from the beginning—definitely from the second vignette of seduction and betrayal—that at some point he will feel love or at least real human emotion toward one of this targets which will lead to his downfall. We are even less surprised when the object of his affection turns out to be his costar. He has a mysterious—or at least to this viewer confusing—past in which he was an insignificant part of the sprawling Pang estate, one of scores of servants with minor connections to a member of the Pang family.

The family is in crisis—the patriarch’s son and only male heir is alive but comatose. His sister, Ruyi, is next in line to the family leadership. Having a female head of the family scandalizes the elderly advisors—they fail in their attempt to control their new mistress by appointing a distant male cousin as a kind of coadjutor through whom they plan to control things. The cousin never has a chance—like everyone else of his gender not yet in their dotage he falls in love with Ruyi. The lovingly voluptuous manner that Doyle lit and shot Gong Li insured that she would bring the audience under her effortlessly seductive spell as well.

Since Ruyi entranced with her beauty Gong Li didn’t have to stretch her acting muscles much to impersonate her—she simply had to look beautiful and let the story unfold around her. As Yu Zhong Liang Leslie Cheung had a much more formidable task, one that would have challenged a more accomplished film actor. He lacked both the technique and the actorly presence to carry off such a complex, heavy and nuanced role. This isn’t really a criticism of Cheung—few actors could have been successful here.

“Temptress Moon” is not unlike a tone poem by Richard Strauss or Jean Sibelius: lush, gorgeous, and evocative of a time and place that, while meant to resemble an Alpine peak or a dark forest in Finland is actually the composer’s recreation of his emotional reaction to such reality. Which is fine—symphonic music isn’t written to depict geography and film isn’t made to teach history. This is Chen Kaige’s view of the despair and destruction that awaits anyone who thinks he can break free of the bonds of his birth or finds love in a world driven by fear and greed.