Temptation Of A Monk (1993)
Directed by: Clara Law
Awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1994:
7th Century China in the Tang dynasty, General Shi Yan-Sheng (Wu Hsing-Kuo - Green Snake) gets tricked into letting his guard down and the Crown Prince is brutally murdered by his brothers. Setting him up and subsequently taking the emperor's throne is General Huo Da (Zheng Fengyi - Farewell My Concubine). Shi leaves with some of his fellow warriors to seek refuge at a monastery, plotting their next move and not practicing Buddhism as instructed. It's Shi however who wanders between different locales psychologically, having had his dream world collapsed and he dives more deeply into the Buddhist learnings...
If you're planning to go out in style, choose the grand option! Clara Law's final Hong Kong production to date (1*) seems just like her arthouse drama Autumn Moon like yet another departure. Going back to the Tang Dynasty to cash in on the new wave Wuxia craze ignited by Tsui Hark...or rather that's what you think she would considering the content on display but Clara Law isn't about to let go of her preferred choice of style. It's big, intimate, complex, concrete and a terrific period piece to boot.
It's all playing to Clara and Eddie Fong's paths as filmmakers, usually providing layered, non-commercial explorations of outcasts in some shape or form, Temptation Of A Monk being the less obvious of their films to bring up their pet themes (usually straight on stories about immigrants). It's rewarding cinema at its very best, which sometimes also means equal parts frustration, possible needed encore viewings and the parts that seems to struggle are actually fine building blocks for Law to weave her personal magic.
Very much a stage play taken to the big screen with bursts of violence of the graphic kind (the film was rated Category III for violence...and sex), battle betrayal and the maintaining of family honour, the film has you on board through many of its aspects in front of- and behind the camera. Design wise the team showcases the grand costumes but there's also hints of the down and dirty reality of being in this world, usually wrapped in plainly coloured, expansive landscape sights by cinematographers Andrew Lesnie and Arthur Wong. It seems hard to plug into all this as it also SEEMS the plot is going to be really heavy on characters and twists (a staple storytelling technique in Wuxia novels and such movies).
But it's the age old thing of sticking with a story, waiting till it calms down and focuses on a single goal that's means carefully adding blocks to achieve that goal, much like Wu Hsing-Kuo's character of Shi Yan-Sheng experiences before and after he becomes the monk Jeng Yi. Through the superb commanding presence of Wu, Eddie Fong and co-writer Lillian Lee's detailed portrayal comes to life, evolving constantly. Truth of the matter is that Jeng Yi's purpose is to be enlightened like a good Buddhist monk but it's the details and struggles getting there that makes the title of the movie truly enlightening. Going through phases of plotting revenge, questioning Buddha and realizing that the world around him has gone numb through the current ruling and decadence, Jeng Yi has to come off as disjointed (and to an extent the acting as well). Clara builds her best momentum with this main story by being extensively quiet about the path of Jeng Yi's.
The movie language becomes highly engrossing because it is so incredibly still and we can easily take in the subtleties on display despite. Law has to bring in exposition to let us in on what goes on in the world at specific points but it's not her sinking to a novice level as a storyteller. She goes further and further into Jeng's psyche, slightly touching upon the feelings of being an outcast, why he potentially was a good sacrifice in other people's minds in order for the dynasty to prosper and ultimately giving us answers as to how Jeng will tackle his newfound place. Again, Law communicates with the utmost sincerity, clarity and knows what kind of audience will accept this. If you settle on a goal, freedom as a filmmaker can be obtained hopefully, without being steered by someone else. Clara Law and Eddie Fong clearly could pretty much all throughout their Hong Kong career.
A big favourite with critics, award jury's and now this reviewer was the score by Tats Lau (2*) and Wai Yee-Leung. Choosing the sparse route, mostly bringing in the traditional orchestration only at key points during the gory violence, the atmosphere is raised tenfold, merging with the subdued imagery of heavy carnage to the desired freakish effect. Law remains quiet with her images as we move along as detailed before and the duo of Tats and Wai responds to that in a terrific way.
Furthermore on the acting, Joan Chen mysterious presence perhaps remains the only puzzling aspect of Temptation Of A Monk for reasons not really worth going into without spoiling the film or boring you. Regardless, Chen's beauty and definite sex appeal takes the erotic aura of the film to the classy places Eddie and Clara so desires. A playful wildflower and a mystery, Chen does ultimately go ever so slightly distant due to unforeseen developments in the last half of the film but yet not. I can only be vague with you. Zheng Fengyi probably does get shifted to the side and is a one-dimensional character largely but it's fully what the purpose of Huo Da's character is. A later key scene brings in welcome substance to the inner workings of the new emperor however. Zheng's range here is expansive, going from low-key, patriotic in a good way and intimidating. Meaning his response to the cunning traits of Huo Da's character is a good one. Special mention goes to the splendid Michael Lee (Cageman) who plays a 100 year old monk with a sense of humour and simple, philosophical solutions to anything in life.
So Clara Law did in fact not so much go out in grand fashion but took on a genre and molded it in her own personal way. Battles occur, blood gets sprayed all over the place but Temptation Of A Monk is a title that corresponds superbly to the core content on screen. To further emphasize an earlier summary, it's deep, it's simple, it's not for the commercially minded but a fitting development in Clara Law's career before heading out to Australia for even more acclaim. She left behind a rich filmography and Temptation Of A Monk represents yet another entry in Law's resume I would like to call unique. It's also another masterpiece.
Long Shong presents the film in an aspect ratio of 1.60:1 approximately. Colours are a little pale and a fuzziness comes with the transfer. Clarity is reasonably good. and mild print damage pops up occasionally. Whatever the reason behind the frame almost constantly moving up and down is, it's one big annoyance about the presentation.
Shot in synch sound Mandarin, Long Shong's option omits the original Dolby Stereo recording in favour of a downmixed Dolby Digital 2.0 mono presentation. While a quiet film, it relies on expanded sounds a number of times so this omission is a shame. Reportedly the pan and scan Region 1 dvd includes the Dolby option and the Ocean Shores laserdisc did as well. As for Long Shong's presentation, it does sound clear in all aspects though.
The imbedded Chinese/English subtitles suffer a little from the fuzziness described but remain readable throughout and feature only minor errors. There are no extras on the disc.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson
(1) Although this was an effort involving Hong Kong, Mainland Chinese, Taiwanese and Australian cast & crew, notably co-cinematographer Andrew Lesnie who won the Academy Award in that capacity for The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring as well as editor Jill Bilcock who has Moulin Rouge, Elizabeth and Road To Perdition under her belt. In addition, Clara Law and partner Eddie Fong may be based out of Australia now but a new Hong Kong project is on the go...stay tuned.
(2) Also an actor, you can see him in Stephen Chow's The God of Cookery, alongside Jackie Chan in Gorgeous and playing Francis Ng's triad buddy in Juliet In Love.