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Not far from Shanghai, in a country twon stands the palatial home of the Pang family. Old Master Pang is an addict who brings up his beautiful daughter Ruyi on opium smoke. Her older brother, Zhengda, is addicted as well, and then paralysed and effectively brain-dead. Zhongliang, Zhengda's brother-in-law, is a successful gigolo in Shanghai who seduces married older women and then blackmails them. When Older Master Pang dies, the clan elders makes Ruyi to take over the role as the head of the household. Zhongliang returns to the Pang family on the death of Old Master Pang, re-encounters Ruyi, and they are secretly attracted to each other. Wanting to seem sophisticated, she succumbs to Zhongliang's attempts to seduce her. But in the emotional maelstrom that follows - for the angry, jealous and sexually frustrated sister (Zhengda's wife) is also part of the picture... Written by
L.H. Wong <firstname.lastname@example.org>
A subtle, contrapuntal masterpiece on circumstance, belief, and the undermining of the human heart
When I rented this after reading the pitiful, typically over-sensualized box, I hoped only that it might struggle above tepid mediocrity in some way. In fact, I saw it and despised Leslie Cheung's petty Songlian and his sister Caifei He for the first hour.
Yet then I began to realize how intricately woven the characters and plot were as visual symbols began reappearing, and the movie began to happily shirk off introductory pretenses and reveal the forces behind the characters and their actions. Songlian's pettiness began to reveal itself as an intense and justifiable self-hatred, and that of his sister as terrible hopelessness. Meanwhile the others in the movie undergo powerful transformations as well, as we see how people struggle to bring their own beliefs to bear beneath the tidal wave of external circumstances. We see how they fail, and how their failure propogates their weaknesses, undermining others.
Overall we see the power of the subversive as it plays on the human mind and heart. We see beliefs destroyed at several levels, we see new beliefs emerge, less pure and more calculating. We see regret unfold in each of the characters, or worse, cold numbness to it from enduring too much.
And there is nothing to regret about the movie, except that the subterranean depths of the content make recommendation difficult (this is not a movie for most grandmothers, even though it is still delicate in how it examines its touchier subject matter). Still, it is beautiful in everything it does. The sights, the characters, the transformations, even the twistiness. We rever the characters and their changes, for good or worse because we understand them irrevokably. The movie is highly rich and interwoven. Elements interplay even down to recurring symbols, and by the end we realize that the entire movie is really symbolized in the first ten minutes, even though there is no way we could realize that from the beginning even if told so. Those ten minutes where we see the beautiful Pang estate, and the children, and life so revoltingly innocent at first glance. That is purposeful. What we take for inconsequential initially is proved to be far from it, and really that contrapuntal layering of pretended motive and deeper meaning continues throughout.
Every minute in this movie counts. Every side glance reflects meaning. "The Piano" was supposed to be subversive, sensual, touching and powerful, showcasing how the heart must contend with external harshness. However, it is clumsy, ugly, blatant, and ineffectual in comparison to "Temptress Moon" which tells so much more with so much less, and it breaks our heart unspeakably, but is above the painful, selfish bitterness or wallowing found in "Farewell My Concubine", "Raise the Red Lantern", and "Indochine" which really tell stories half as complex (maybe not Indochine). The characters in Temptress Moon are noble, despite and because of their outer twistedness and rent hearts.
A sumptuous earring, a swinging lamp, fresh roses, Songlian's longings for Peking, and twisting opium smoke and speeches on its merits and cruelties-- all these symbols snake by at first, yet come to how powerful meaning in the end, and they strike us at many levels in the movie, each time richer with understanding. I left far surprised and impressed. Finally, a movie great enough to express itself in humility of pretenses. If only they'd ditch the stupid and coarsely sensual box.
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