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
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
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.