Temptation of a Monk (You Seng, 1993 Hong Kong/China 118 mins)
Prod Co: Golden Harvest Company Ltd. [HK] Prod: Teddy Robin Kwan Dir: Clara Law Scr: Eddie Ling Ching Fong, Lillian Lee Ph: Andrew Lesnie Ed: Jill Bilcock Mus: Tats Lau
Cast: Joan Chen, Michael Lee, Lisa Lu, Hsing-kuo Wu, Fengyi Zhang
The films of Clara Law run a trajectory from Farewell China (1990) to Autumn Moon (1992) to Floating Life (1996), and lately to The Goddess of 1967 (2000) – all films that form a canon about migration and despondency, geography and ethnicity. Only Temptation of a Monk (1993), perched between Autumn Moon and Floating Life, interrupts the flow. A period film shot in China, in contrast to the canon (all the films there are postmodernist-contemporary, with the common feature that they are all international co-productions or involve international settings), Temptation of a Monk starts off as an epic, with images of a ceremonial dance performed against the background of archaic monarchical splendour. The time is the Tang Dynasty. Two generals owe their allegiances to different lords, and one persuades the other to betray his own lord, who is killed. This triggers a crisis of conscience in Shi Yansheng (played by Taiwanese Beijing Opera actor Wu Hsin-kuo), the central protagonist. Shi then sets out to exact revenge on Huo Da (played by Mainland Chinese actor Zhang Fengyi), the man who initiated Shi’s betrayal and then compounds it with his own betrayal of Shi. So far, the plot smacks of elements of Jacobean tragedy, cloaked with thinly veiled references to Kurosawa’s Shakespearean epics. Law is naturally eager to show off her mettle here as a director. She has clearly jumped at the opportunity to make an epic, and has done so by factoring in the cinematic allusions that seem pro forma these days.
Despite the obvious quotations from Kurosawa and even smatterings of Chen Kaige (of The Yellow Earth), Law does achieve some impressive vistas of her own, such as a battle scene set in a Tang castle courtyard that looks like a blueprint for a similar set-piece in a latter Chen Kaige picture, The Emperor and the Assassin (1999), which Temptation predates by several years. For a while, Temptation looks like it could have been the precursor of the kind of historical epic represented by Chen’s film, and Zhou Xiaowen’s The Emperor’s Shadow (1996). But Law doesn’t really sustain the epic formulations of her film. It almost appears that she had given up less than half way through the production. As a second-generation New Wave artist of Hong Kong cinema, she is too eclectic and far too contemporary to delve into authentic historical recreations and conventional epic picture-making. The Chinese directors did it so much better of course, and in a sense, their epics were the legitimate kind, while Temptation only pretends to be an epic. (In actual fact, Law’s Chinese partners in this co-production deal between an independent Hong Kong company and a state-run company set up to oversee co-productions were aghast at the director when they saw what she finally delivered. The film was banned in China, and, for her part, Law has spoken out against her Chinese partners and the unhappy circumstances of the shoot, making the point that she found working with the Chinese crew difficult, largely due to the exigencies of co-production financing.)
Not having an epic vision, Law is more interested in the illusion of history, and she sets out to disorient our visual perceptions of the period genre, its style, character, dress. Her women are prone to wearing European-style cone heads and hoop-dresses. In other scenes, they wear haute-couture low cuts with mascara and eye shadow on their faces – like the grotesques out of Fellini or Greenaway. In terms of genre, the style shifts from period epic into a would-be serial-type martial arts adventure featuring kung fu warriors disguised as monks hiding out in a temple while plotting their moves for a comeback (evocative of Lau Kar-leong’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, for example, or director Zhang Che’s famous series of kung fu movies revolving around the survivors of the great Shaolin Temple fire). However, Law is as furtive with the martial arts genre as she is with the epic form. The general and five of his loyal retainers are inducted as monks but find even the monastic lifestyle too tough for them – which strikes an unrealistic note considering that they are supposed to be tough, disciplined soldiers to begin with. A runaway princess (Joan Chen), in love with the general, turns up and leads the monk-masqueraders into a den of Bacchanalian revellers for a night of excess. The general – in shaven head, known as Jingyi – laments the cynicism of the world when he’s informed that all his enemies are rewarded and his friends have surrendered to be promoted to high rank.
At this point, the film crosses into murky territory (nitpickers might say the point was crossed earlier). The conscience of the monk Jingyi gains more currency, as he survives an ambush (during which the princess and most of his men are killed) and flees to a dilapidated temple run by an eccentric abbot. The film shows the monk trying to achieve redemption by pandering to the whims of the abbot, but yet, there’s a sense that he isn’t convincing us, nor the abbot. He gives in to sexual temptation far too easily, for example, when an aristocratic temptress (Joan Chen, again) turns up seeking to bury her husband’s ashes in the temple and proceeds to seduce him. Temptation may be in the title but redemption is the real theme of the picture, and it’s a measure of Law’s inability to expound on the process of redemption that the film finally falls apart. Sex and violence may be second nature to the general, but as the monk Jingyi, his nature and character is tested. Jingyi appears to be wholly sincere in submitting himself to such a test. But either Law and her scriptwriters have given up, or the character has not been steadfast enough. Human nature, the film suggests, may not be changeable.