Temptress Moon

China - 1996

Movie Review By Andrea Chase

The Chinese have every reason to recoil in horror at the recreational use of opium. A good case can be made for it being the reason that the empire fell, thanks to the British, who introduced the opium trade to begin with. Chen Kaige's latest film, the visually sumptuous "Temptress Moon," offers a case in horrifying point about opium's ability to mess up the lives of everyone it touches, user or not.

The film opens with a little girl looking into the camera and asking someone off screen about opium. Her eyes are wide with curiosity and when the pleasures of opium are described, an evil smile splits her face. The child, we learn is Ruyi. The young man answering her question is her opium-addicted, older brother, Zhengda. It is his addiction to and Ruyi's seduction by opium that sets in motion the tragedy that their lives will become.

Ruyi is the headstrong, pampered daughter of awealthy rural family still living in feudal splendor in 1911. Also in the household is her poor cousin, Duanwu, who is devoted body and soul to caring for her, and Zhongliang, whose job in the house is to prepare the opium pipe for Zhengda. When his sister, Zhengda's wife, herself takes to the pipe, the stage is set for an act of sexual betrayal that sends Zhongliang running from the house, but only after committing an act of revenge that will destroy four lives with sexual intrigue, decadence, and betrayal.

The story, spanning ten years, is photographed sometimes with a fisheye lens, but always with liberal use of tracking shots. The effect on the viewer is what the world might look like through an opium eaters' eyes. The dreamy quality also drives the performances, which are subtle but devastating, particularly Kevin Lin as the faithful cousin, who goes from lackey to demon with only one small, startling change of expression and Leslie Cheung who plays the wronged and vengeful Zhongliang with eyes as hard and cold as obsidian.

"Temptress Moon" tells a riveting story of people so consumed by drugs and anger that they are no longer able to distinguish between happiness and despair. And perhaps driven beyond the ability to feel anything.

© 1997 Andrea Chase Air Date: 6/18/97

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