Temptation of a Monk

Reviewed by YTSL

"Eat at the time to eat.  Sleep at the time to sleep.  Die at the time to die".  If these words seem nonsensical, empty of much real meaning or plainly pretentious to you, especially when you see them appear on screen at the point that they do in this absolutely atypical Hong Kong film (which nonetheless was actually produced by Teddy Robin Kwan!), then the chances are sky high that this 1993 Clara Law work won't be at all to your liking.  For my part, they suitably capped the kind of cinematic experience that filled me with awe at the ability of the filmmaker(s) to simultaneously (re)create a world unlike any this (re)viewer had previously seen, yet endow it with enough understandable -- even if not sympathetic -- situations and characters for me to emotionally connect with as well intellectually comprehend.

Before anything else, let me point out that I don't know much about the customs, ways of life, outfits, hairstyles and particular histories of princes, princesses, other nobles, generals, other military men and other denizens of the Tang Dynasty (618-906 A.D.).  Hence, I cannot judge whether the costumes, deportment and behavior of the individuals depicted in TEMPTATION OF A MONK truly conform to those of actual people who lived during that temporally distant period of Chinese history.  For the purposes of this film though, I'd hazard to suggest that perhaps authenticity matters less here than the utilization of such elements to place certain intriguing characters in incredibly visually fascinating settings and dramatically interesting circumstances.

Although Joan Chen is its headlined star, and does have two roles in the approximately two-hour length work (one as an imperial princess named Scarlet; another as a woman who identifies herself as Violet, the widow of a general), she actually is not its focus.  Neither is it the Mainland Chinese superstar actor, Zhang Fengyi (who has the part of General Huo Da, the politically astute right hand man of the ambitious Prince Shi Min).  Instead, TEMPTATION OF A MONK's central character is portrayed by Wu Hsing Kuo, and he is absolutely superb as the individual who is first viewed holding the position of highest ranking commander of the Crown Prince's guards.
At least half an hour of film goes by before Wu's General Shi Yang Sheng -- and five of his military, and not particularly pious, men -- opt to retreat to a monastery.  An additional fifteen minutes or so of this Category III rated production unfolds before any monks are shown being exposed and enticed to partake in such forbidden pleasures as meat consumption and the viewing of all manners of performative entertainment as well as the naked breasts of obviously loose women along with participation in the sex act itself.  From one point of view, it could be argued that all before that which is signaled by a location shift that takes place about fifteen minutes after the one hour mark -- and also the introduction of a fourth not insignificant character (an elderly sprite of an Abbot played by Michael Lee, who is given to make such observations as:  "Here is here, there is there, why use your heart to think?"!) -- is but a prelude to, and setting up of, what may be considered to really matter.
However, this is not at all to say that nothing of note takes place prior to that.  Indeed, an alien looking dance performance (that would not look out of place in a higher order sci-fi fantasy) that is part of a large-scale formal ceremony with religious overtones, a post deer hunt meeting between a couple of bloodied men and a noble woman and her entourage plus a fateful conversation over an ostensibly friendly game of chess prove to be but well staged and shot plot preludes for such as:  Imperial fratricide condoned by the father after he had been told by one son that the others had had adultery with his favorite concubine; and the catalystic act of a mother (played by Lisa Lu) that truly drives home an emotional point to -- as well as manages to elicit a difficult promise from -- her well-meaning but consequently guilt-ridden son.
Though its pace is mannered and style is most definitely "arthouse", the generally austere feeling TEMPTATION OF A MONK certainly does have its share of brutal and bloody actions (including decapitations), not just conversation, monologues and meditations!  Still, it was the less violent -- and indeed, many of the non-verbal -- moments of this spellbinding film that had the most impact on, as well as impressed, me.  I'm not sure whether it's Clara Law, co-cinematographers Arthur Wong and Andrew Lesnie or co-scriptwriters Eddie Fong and Lillian Lee who most deserve credit for having a wonderful eye for the kind of details that truly aid the overall presentation of an unusual and ultimately moving story.  Whoever it is, and especially considering that he/she/they had but a paltry by Hollywood standards US$ 3.5 million to work with, I reckon that we're talking about a dream factory miracle worker (or two or more) here.
A couple of technical notes:  1) The subtitled translations appear to be -- gasp! -- well nigh perfect; and 2) the blue tinge that envelopes the bulk of the picture from when the tale moves to the setting of the more secluded monastery apparently are part of Clara Law's stunningly singular visual conception.

My rating for the film:  8.5

DVD Information:

Distributed by Ocean Shores

For an Ocean Shores DVD this is a terrific transfer - not as sharp as you might like and the colors felt earthy - but that may well have been the intention of the filmmakers. There is also no irritating Ocean Shores logo popping into the picture. A pretty satisfying look in total for a beautifully filmed movie.


Cantonese and Mandarin language tracks

There is of course no menu - so no extras

The subtitles are burnt on Chinese and English.