THE EMERGENCE of China as a global power is one of the most important events of the last few years. The news media highlights this fact on an almost daily basis with headlines and TV sound-bites that pose questions about the moral legitimacy of the Beijing regime: Should the United States grant China Most Favored Nation status as a trading partner despite its continuing persecution of dissidents and other human rights abuses? What will happen to Hong Kong now that it's under mainland control?
But there are other developments behind the Great Wall to which Westerners should pay attention. In addition to flexing its economic and geopolitical muscles, China is also beginning to produce artists with expanded cultural horizons. Prominent among this group are the so-called “fifth generation” of filmmakers whose works have received international acclaim although often banned at home. Led by Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern and Shanghai Triad) and Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine), they have examined their country's recent past with ruthless honesty. In the process they have obliquely raised many of the same moral questions that trouble western observers.
Although the best of the fifth generation films are dramatically compelling to viewers everywhere, their view of history seems alien to most Westerners. It is depicted as a cruel, impersonal force, mercilessly grinding down those on the wrong side of it. Individual choices, while important to a person's moral development, are usually overwhelmed by larger political and cultural events, and evil often goes unpunished.
Kaige's most recent work, Temptress Moon, has been banned on the mainland because of its political and moral candor. The action begins in 1911, when a democratic revolt caused the abdication of the country's last imperial dynasty, and extends to 1921, the year the Chinese Communist Party was founded. It's a classic family saga about the passing of power from one generation to the next as told by an outsider whose behavior affects the outcome.
Thirteen-year-old Yu Zhongliang (Ren Lei) has been orphaned by the revolution as it engulfed Shanghai. He is invited to stay with his sister (Zhang Shi) who has married Zhengda (Zhou Yemang), the heir-apparent of the wealthy Pang family. Eager to help build the new society that will emerge after 2,000 years of imperial domination, Zhongliang aspires to be a scholar and study in Beijing. Instead he is treated as a servant by the Pangs and forced to prepare the daily opium pipe for his brother-in-law, an unbalanced addict.
Zhengda's pre-adolescent sister, Ruyi (Wang Ying), runs wild through the palatial rural estate, pulling the covering off mahjong tables while games are in progress and scampering into places where women have been traditionally forbidden. Zhongliang's happiest moments are his playtime with Ruyi and her loyal, not-too-bright cousin, Duanwu (Ge Lin). But Zhengda so degrades the young would-be-scholar that he runs back to Shanghai.
Ten years pass, and a grown-up Zhongliang (Leslie Cheung) has found profitable employment with one of Shanghai's most powerful crime gangs.
His boss (Xie Tien) orders him to return to the Pang estate and ingratiate himself with Ruyi (Gong Li) who was made head of the family after her father's death. Her brother, Zhengda, had degenerated into an opium-addled vegetable unfit to rule.
Individual choices, while important to a person's moral development, are usually overwhelmed by larger political and cultural events, and evil often goes unpunished.
The gang plans to manipulate Ruyi's trust in Zhongliang to gain control of the Pang fortune. An expertly trained blackmailer, Zhongliang seems perfect for the task. His hatred for the Pang family is a prime motivation. Unfortunately, he falls in love.
Ruyi quickly comes under his spell. Herself an opium user, she has preserved a kind of innocence that makes her unable to see the trap that's being set for her.
Zhongliang is torn between his feelings for Ruyi and obligations to the crime family. When he brings her to Shanghai as the gang ordered, his boss can see that love is blossoming between the two young people. So the older man stages a scene to reveal to the Pang heiress the sleazy way her lover has been making his living. Shocked, she flees back to her estate. Zhongliang chases after her and is forced to choose between his two loyalties.
On the surface, Temptress Moon is a highly charged melodrama of romance and revenge set against a background of great wealth. But Chaige's intelligent, passionate treatment of his material gives it a larger meaning. The opulent beauty of the Pang estate is documented in a way that reveals the social and moral decay on which it's built.
Indestructible as the Pang family seems to all who become caught in its meshes, the audience can see it won't be able to withstand the winds of change swirling so fiercely around it. The unnecessary but inevitable tragedy that results from Zhongliang and Ruyi's romance dramatizes why revolution will surely follow. While the movie's two lovers struggle desperately to assert their individuality and lurch towards freedom, the psychological and family backgrounds that fate has dealt them ultimately determine their destiny.
The West is going to have to come to terms with China in the next century. Epic films like Temptress Moonprovide us with clues as to how its understanding of the human condition is sometimes different from ours.
John Prizer is based in Los Angeles.