Director Chen Kaige creates a rich period masterpiece about sex, friendship, and politics with TEMPTRESS MOON, the story of a wealthy family struggling to maintain their history on the outskirts of Shanghai.
Due to her brother's “accident” in smoking arsenic instead of opium, Ruyi (played by the ever-luminous Gong Li) is granted leadership over the family fortune at a time when women’s equality didn’t exist. Ruyi’s cousin, Duanwu (Kevin Lin), is ordered to serve as her personal attaché, and, smitten by her charms, he faithfully executes her every command. However, Zhongliang -- a close relation now grown up and playing a con man to perfection in Shanghai -- returns home, at the behest of his boss, to bilk Ruyi out of the family fortune. As the balance of influence continually shifting between Zhongliang and Ruyi and Duanwu, it becomes increasingly difficult for each person to understand how love – or the appearance of it – drives not only their honesty but also their respective deceits. However, when Zhongliang discovers he has fallen deeply in love with Ruyi, he chooses to alter her fate ... but his choice only secures his own fate in the eyes of the triad he serves.
Far more melodrama than pure period piece, TEMPTRESS MOON is exquisitely photographed, though this image transfer on this release is a bit grainy at times. It is a contemporary 'Romeo & Juliet,' with gangland influences and wonderful period settings. The lovemaking -- while pushing the boundaries in a mainstream foreign release -- is relatively tame but beautiful captured with powerful emotion and vivid lighting. At points, the film feels almost like a narrative valentine to the family and the viewer; but don't look for any happy ending here.
The ending poses a small handful of tight flashbacks that gives new meaning to some of the events depicted in the film, defining more greatly the motivations of the main characters, once again demonstrating how meaningful small decisions are in the pursuit of daily life and how tragic their consequences may inevitably be in the day, months, and years ahead.
Although the film ran into distribution problems with the Chinese government quite possibly over themes of politics, drug use, and open sexuality, TEMPTRESS MOON played to great enthusiasm at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival – where it was nominated for the Golden Palm – as well as New York’s 1996 Film Festival. At the Hong Kong Film Awards, Gong Li received a nomination for Best Actress, Hap Kwai Wong received a nomination for Best Art Direction, and Christopher Doyle received a nomination for Best Cinematography.
While it arguably may be a bit hard to follow at times – the film is replete with flashbacks that, in their bid to advance the story, end up only adding unnecessary weight to the experience – TEMPTRESS MOON nonetheless delivers as a truly spectacular visual experience that should not be missed. It provides a wealth of rich images, all supporting a storyline far more complex than it need be, and it sports two wonderful performances – Leslie Cheung and Gong Li, reunited from Kaige’s earlier FAREWELL, MY CONCUBINE.