Temptress Moon Review

With films such as Farewell My Concubine and The Emperor and the Assassin, Chen Kaige has become well-known for sprawling, big-budget films that set family tragedy and conflict against the political upheavals of Chinese history. Coming between those two films, Temptress Moon is smaller in scope, but adheres to Chen's themes and obsessions and is still film-making on a grand and epic scale.

The opening scene of Temptress Moon introduces us to the Pang family. It is 1911, the year of the Xinghai revolution and the anachronistic Pang family with their servants and concubines is out of step with the cultural revolutionary mood soon to visit China. The main characters are introduced and it is clear that this is no ordinary family. The Pang children seem to live their life in a permanent opium haze and the film’s opening shots mirror this impression, the camera languidly swaying as it follows characters down corridors and through swinging doors. Zhonglian has an incestuous relationship with his elder sister who is married to Zhengda, the eldest son of the Pang clan. Zhonglian prepares his brother-in-law’s opium and one day poisons the narcotic, leaving the heir to the family comatose in a wheelchair. The youngest daughter, Ruyi has been an opium addict since she was a baby.

Several years pass and when Old Master Pang dies, Zhengda is in no state to head the family. Ruyi (Gong Li) is therefore called upon to head the family, with the assistance of her cousin and childhood friend, Duanun, since he is also of the Pang family but not a direct heir. By this the senior servants hope to be able to exercise influence over the girl, but she quickly dispels this idea, immediately expelling her dead father's concubines and throwing the household into turmoil.

In 1920’s Shanghai meanwhile, the corrupting influence of his childhood has made Zhonglian a handsome and heartless lady-killer (a familiar role for Leslie Cheung) who uses his charms to make a living out of seducing and blackmailing rich married women. When he returns to the Pang Family Estate to work a similar scheme there, Ruyi immediately falls for this handsome face from her past and the consequences are tragic.

This is a marvellous film; powerful, emotional and deeply sensual in a way that the director’s first English language film, Killing Me Softly spectacularly failed to achieve earlier this year. The film features some beautiful and atmospheric camera work from Wong Kar-Wai’s regular cinematographer, Christopher Doyle (In The Mood For Love, Chungking Express). His close, hand-held camera work moves along with the characters, weaving down corridors and drawing the viewer into each beautifully lit scene. The performances, as ever, are superb and the characters are brilliantly realised.

Whoever had the job of mastering this film for DVD has my sympathies as it is one of the darkest films I have ever seen and must have been a nightmare to transfer. The film has a bold colour scheme – deliberately not naturalistic, it is unconventionally lit with strong contrasts, blazes of deep reds, yellows and oranges and lots of use of filters. Any television transfer I have seen previously has completely failed to cope with the low lighting and failed to preserve the mood of the original cinema release, but this DVD does remarkably well. There is a faint grain, but this is probably due to the lighting conditions under which the film was shot. Bright objects have a fuzzy halo effect around them when set against dark objects and conversely, strong white backgrounds bleed over into dark foreground objects. Christopher Doyle is well known for his experiments with colour and use of filters and Chen has used sepia filters in other films (The Emperor and the Assassin), so I’ve no doubt most of the effects are intentional. Apart from the above difficulties in transferring this material to DVD, the print is otherwise very fine, almost entirely free from marks or digital artefacts. Optional English subtitles are yellow, blend in well with the image and are clear and readable.

The original Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack with its wonderful score are well preserved. Chen Kaige works again here with Jiping Zhao who has scored all his films as well as Zhang Yimou’s most famous films (Red Sorghum, Raise The Red Lantern, The Story of Qui Ju, To Live).

Trailers. The theatrical trailer for Temptress Moon runs to 2 minutes and is presented in the 4:3 ratio. As usual with foreign language films, there is no dialogue in the trailer, just an inappropriate voice-over. There are also Sneak Peek trailers for Chungking Express, Iron Monkey, The Legend 2, and City on Fire, none of which do the films justice because their actual DVD releases are of much better quality than the trailers presented here.

Chen Kaige has created a remarkably beautiful and epic family saga in Temptress Moon. Stylish almost to the point of abstraction, it has little in common with Western-style film-making. Some may find it, along with much of Chen Kaige’s work, all overbearingly portentous and overwrought, but if you’re familiar with Kaige’s style or willing to give this film the few viewings it may require to fall under the spell it casts, it certainly repays the effort.

A special look at Chen Kaige's work on DVD can be read here.

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