Not far from Shanghai, in a country twon stands the palatial home of the Pang family. Old Master Pang is an addict who brings up his beautiful daughter Ruyi on opium smoke. Her older brother, Zhengda, is addicted as well, and then paralysed and effectively brain-dead. Zhongliang, Zhengda's brother-in-law, is a successful gigolo in Shanghai who seduces married older women and then blackmails them.
Directed by one of Chinese cinema's leading lights the film was finished after an unfathomable set of hiccups. For starters, after two months of shooting, the director replaced his original leading lady with Gong Li. There then followed a delay due to bad weather, leading to a doubling of the $4 million budget. To top it all, the Chinese government then banned the resulting feature for its political undercurrent and explicit scenes.
Fortunately, Kaige has overcome all obstacles and come up with a surprisingly accessible, if downbeat, tale of doomed love. Set in the politically tumultuous 1920s, gigolo and gangster Zhongliang (Cheung), is sent by his gangland boss to the marital home of his sister (He Saifei) to seduce the new female godmother, opium addicted ingenue Ruyi (Gong Li).
Unfortunately, the family estate holds unhappy childhood memories for Zhongliang of servitude and his sister's attempts to get him into the sack. Inevitably, embittered playboy falls for junkie lady boss, only for jealousy and sexual betrayal to bring about an unhappy ending.
There's no shortage of action, with hefty doses of murder, extortion and incest, but peopled with rarely engaging characters playing out dramas in a shadowy world, there's not much to lift the glum mood.
Despite its racier elements, what you're left with is the kind of movie which is easy to admire but more difficult to like.