A Frenchman who works for his native government in China is accused of spying after it emerges that he has told his Chinese lover top secret information. As if that wasn't enough of a shock for him, he then discovers his lover is not actually a woman but a man.
In 1986 a Frenchman was convicted of espionage, having blurted state secrets to his Mata Hari-like Chinese lover, a former opera singer. The unusual aspect of the story was that the seductive spy sustained a lengthy and intimate relationship without ever revealing to the duped diplomat that "she" was actually a man.
Chinese-American writer David Henry Hwang fictionalised the story as the basis for his successful play, which David Cronenberg has now translated into a blankly peculiar film. Jeremy Irons manages to be convincingly haunted and obsessed, tentative enough in his marriage and job as a spymaster to suggest an identity on the point of collapse. But John Lone, who gives a marvellous performance, is let down by his face, almost always suggesting a man in drag rather than true androgyny.
In focusing intently on the central relationship, the film loses its grip on everything else. Secondary characters such as Irons' wife (Sukowa) disappear without trace, and major historical events are hurried over in single unresonant scenes. By ignoring the espionage angle in favour of the impossible love, we wind up with a movie which explains how Irons can fall for a woman who is really a man but never answers the question of how he could betray his country. The end result, while not entirely unrewarding, is another step away from the singular vision Cronenberg once expressed even in his marginal works.
Although the puzzling relationship between Irons and Lone does deserve much attention, the film is set in an important historical period and yet several events are just skipped over as if they don't even register. Irons gives a strong performance while it's a shame Lone didn't more androgynous.