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OPIUM WARS WEALTHY CHINESE DECADENCE BEAMS IN 'TEMPTRESS MOON'

THE FILMS of Chen Kaige are distinctly Asian in content and philosophy, yet there is something familiar in their beautiful, nearly glowing women, their lush period backdrops and the intensity lurking just beneath a veneer of social formality.

Consider Chen the one-man Merchant-Ivory of China, with Gong Li his Helena Bonham Carter and Leslie Cheung his Daniel Day-Lewis. Chen doesn't "make movies." He builds, or rather rebuilds, entire worlds.

Modern China didn't care much for the world he brings back in "Temptress Moon." It has banned the movie. Chen says he doesn't know the exact reason for the ban, but that it may be due to the way he shows opium use. Opium is the rot beneath the riches of the Pang family, wealthy landowners in rural turn-of-the-century China.

On the surface, the Pangs live up to all expectations. Their lives are ones of sumptuous understatement. And they are, most of them anyway, addicts.

Yu Xiuyi has married into the Pang family and brings her younger brother, Zhongliang, into the household when he is barely 11. But instead of pursuing his studies, Zhongliang becomes a servant to his sister's new family, even down to preparing their opium.

The drug has infected even Ryui, the young Pang daughter who otherwise would be friend to Zhongliang. In one lively, childish scene, she turns her household topsy-turvy. At the same time, word arrives that the child emperor of China has given up his throne. Tasteful metaphors abound.

This lotus-eating life does not suit Zhongliang, who quakes at being drawn into his sister's wasteful existance. He tries to escape to Beijing, only to be robbed at the train station. Then his life takes another sudden turn.

We could expect to be halfway through the movie by now, but this is just the opening of "Temptress Moon." You try to sort it out as the movie hits its stride and, thankfully, slows its pace. Soon Chen brings all his threads together in an engrossing story of many kinds of love and as many kinds of betrayal.

Though Ryui (Gong Li) is a woman, she takes over her father's household when he dies. She sends away all his concubines, symbols of the old life that have no meaning in a place run by a woman, symbols of Old China that the new China has no place for, either.

Zhongliang (Leslie Cheung) never completed his studies. He's a Shanghai gigolo, seducing and then blackmailing married women. He has found a new "family" for himself, that of an aging mobster who treats him like a son.

When the Boss tells him to return to the Pangs and romance Ryui, Zhongliang resists. He wants to leave the past behind. He knows that, for him, it is poison.

Ryui realizes that escape is her only hope as well. She convinces herself she loves Zhongliang and begs him to do exactly as he has been ordered -- to take her away with him.

But they are not alone in the prison of the past, and there really is no escape.

Chen positions his characters as carefully as chess pieces. They move around one another without ever getting away. The game they play is as much against themselves as against one another, with the tragic outcome as inevitable as sunset after there has been a new dawn.

MOVIE
Temptress Moon

Rating:*** 1/2 A story of passion and seduc tion in revolutionary China. Directed by Chen Kaige ("Fare well My Concubine"). Starring Leslie Cheung and Gong Li. With subtitles. Rated R, opens today at the North Park Theater.

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