Hong Kong, 1999
Reviewed at the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival by Shelly Kraicer
One of the festival's small disappointments was Sylvia Chang's new film, Tempting Heart. Chang, who directs, acts, and also wrote the screenplay, plays contemporary Hong Kong filmmaker Cheryl.
She works with a colleague to turn episodes of her life into their newest project. A life of teen romance thwarted, then fitfully revived in adulthood: Gigi Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro, high school sweethearts in 70s, reencounter each other in the '80s and '90s. Karen Mok adds interest as the best friend and would be lover of both.
Production credits are superb. Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin creates a beautiful, subtly modulated colour palette (in what I'm beginning to think of as characteristically Taiwanese aquatic-textured soft greens and blues) to the '70s sections. There is an overall polish to the film that gives it a easy, commodified gloss that might make it successful as entertainment product.
This easily consumable package, though, contains a narrative with some tricky discontinuities and multiple layering. Despite its fidgety structure, which embeds flashbacks inside what is only belatedly revealed to be a film-within-a-film, Tempting Heart remains mired in a world of cliched nostalgia. But it's not clear to me how the film benefits from these bits of the story that are withheld until late in the narrative. In a text which seems to take the nostalgic attitude as a given, which avoids interrogating/unpacking its more problematic aspects, occasional narrative discontinuities come off as mere formal trickery, insufficiently daring to be playful, inadequately motivated to be meaningful in any sort of self-reflexive way.
The soft-centered and largely predictable screenplay isn't helped by the teen idol stars: Kaneshiro is at his least expressive, and Gigi Leung at her most (which puts them at about the same level). It is always a pleasure to watch Karen Mok in a film: here, she manages, in her final monologue with Kaneshiro, to transcend her material, and bring her severely under-written character to brief, vivid, moving life. Several minor character roles were nicely realized, though Chang herself seemed uncharacteristically constrained in her role in the framing story.
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