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Fate's Foil

Temptress Moon
Why Me?: Tragedy dogs Gong Li in all her disaster-ripe films.

Gong Li suffers further indignities in 'Temptress Moon' melodrama

By Richard von Busack

WE ALL KNOW that expression about the artist who goes to the well one too many times--shouldn't there be one about the performer who goes through the mill one too many times? Gong Li gets it in the neck again in Kaige Chen's Temptress Moon, and the same cool suffering that made her an international star is beginning to come across as a shtick. The horrendous fates she meets just have to be topped in her subsequent films--it's becoming a vicious cycle that she may never break. In Temptress Moon, Chen tries to best the punch line from Shanghai Triad, in which the unlucky Li was buried alive. After seeing how badly she ends up in the closing scene of Temptress Moon, you may suspect that all that's left for her is peritonitis (a la Bette Davis in Beyond the Forest).

China in 1912­22: The antics of the decadent Pang clan are the background for this Eastern gothic. They're a pack of vaguely incestuous rich people whose pagoda is located in the heart of a lily-choked swamp. The Pangs warp their new ward, Zhongliang, who has come there to live with his sister and brother-in-law, Pang Zhengda. Through the humiliating experience of having to fix Zhengda's opium--and do worse things for his pleasure--Zhongliang turns to crime. As an adult (played by Leslie Cheung), he supports himself in the corrupt city of Shanghai. There, he carries on a nasty variation of the old badger game, seducing married ladies and then pretending to be one of the victims of a scheme to blackmail them.

Zhongliang's criminal boss, well-satisfied with his protégé's work, gives him a new assignment: seduce and betray the heiress to the Pang fortune, Pang Ruyi (Li). Now, the Pang estate is a cobwebbed Havishamian ruin, lorded over by cruel Confucian gnomes. Zhengda himself is dead after spending a spell as a bald-headed paralytic in a lounge chair. Torn between duty and love, Zhongliang makes the wrong choice and ends up bringing destruction to himself and his loved ones.

Temptress Moon was banned in China, doubtlessly because of the goings-on at the Pang pagoda. Sensation-lovers, be warned: the decadence is so tiptoe that you can't be sure of what you're seeing. (Though the obliqueness is actually an asset in the film's lovely, misty photography.) The agony of duty is a natural subject for Chinese popular fiction, but in the West, such a story has less power and smells of the most intractable Victorian fiction; Cheung's Zhongliang seems like a deer resigned to the oncoming headlights. Also, once again standing immobile on the Expressway of Fate, Li gives her standard look of incomprehension in the face of betrayal. She needs a comedy, badly.

Temptress Moon (R; 130 min.), directed by Kaige Chen, written by Kei Shu, Anyi Wang and Chen, photographed by Christopher Doyle and starring Gong Li and Leslie Cheung.

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From the June 19-25, 1997 issue of Metro.

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