The Story: Based on the novel by Marguerite Duras. 1920's Siagon. A young 15 ½ year old girl (Jane March) and a Chinese aristocrat (Tony Leung) embark on an affair. Her family is poor, struggling, hampered by her depressed mother and opium addicted brother. His family is extraordinarily wealthy, and he has never had to work a day in his life. She like that he is wealthy, finds it romantic, but also recognizes it as a weakness and doesn't respect him. He likes that her family has troubles, living somewhat vicariously through her hardships. The girl knows theirs is an affair that will never be accepted, by either families, and she doesn't want commitment, but a chance to be in control, exercise her awakening sexuality, as well as show her dysfunctional family her independence. He knows it is a doomed affair too, but, having little else in life other than his affairs and an impending arranged marriage, he begins to feel himself falling for this woman that is seemingly uninterested in him emotionally. Just outside the hustle and frenzy of the Shanghai streets, they have their steamy, taboo, encounters in his "bachelor's room", knowing its only a matter of time before it must end.
The Film: The Lover came out during a big exclusively arthouse phase I went through, when I was forsaking anything that didn't have subtitles or a distinctively snooty stink to it, and I didn't set foot in a theater if it was a multiplex. I'm somewhat a fan of The Lover and think it is a better example of a genre that more often than not, has horribly executed films within it, that is- the sex film, the passion film, the erotic film. Is it a really good or great film? Well no... not really. But, making a film about passion and sex, more often than not falls into sleaze or laughable territory; it really is a difficult subject to dance around. There are so many vast differences, from 9 ½ Weeks, to Last Tango in Paris, to Crash, Tokyo Decadence, Two Moon Junction, Bliss, The Wide Sargasso Sea, to your late night Shannon Tweed direct to video erotic thriller. And, really, how many good, and I mean all around good well executed, serious sex films can you think of? Not many I would suspect. So, The Lover wins out as a good erotic film simply because most films in the genre are so bad.
While admirable in trying show some elements of a love forbidden not just because of age difference, but cultural ones as well, ultimately the two protagonists enter into their affair full well knowing it is futile to expect anything long term. So therefore, why care? You know it is doomed, so it really just becomes a matter of time before their separation, padded out with some steamy sex scenes and familial struggles in-between. In the same way the story doesn't name the two lovers- just the Chinaman and the young girl- and the two refuse to speak of any long term commitments, it's ultimate flaw is also failing to have us connect with them. The scenes between the girl and her family, fighting with her mother and opium addicted brother, are painstakingly bad. Really the only good acting is between the central characters, anytime it strays beyond that, its overacting, melodrama time. Yet, her lack of involvement in him, and his forced wanting to love her, never quite gels. By the end of the film we are supposed to believe that the two really loved each other and despite wishing their relationship to be a physical one, that they both were secretly (more secret in her case) very emotionally involved. Yet, I just never saw it. I saw a girl who was taking control and enjoying herself emerging as a strong in command woman, having an exotic affair, not wanting anything more out of it. And, in him, I saw a spoiled rich man, who wants desperately to have something of his own, to break out, to be in a forbidden love instead of having everything easily handed to him in life.
Despite its serious story flaws, like I said before, so many film in this genre are so much worse, that The Lover becomes a good film by default. Its selling points are the two lead and its director and location. Jane March does admirably well with her first screen role, there are a few bad acting moments, but in a role that calls for quite a bit from a young actress, revealing her sexuality yet still being innocent, having control, and tortured by her family woes, she does a noble job for a first timer. Her career has definitely gone downhill since, becoming another actress with a promising debut, only to follow it up with a lackluster resume (like Dominique Swain- Lolita 97', Elizabeth Hartman- A Patch of Blue, and Sue Lyon- Lolita 62'). Tony Leung Ka Fai does well too, with a tricky vulnerable role, as essentially a very weak man. This is no Mickey Rourke, sweaty lothario, but a man afraid to lose his wealth and power, even though it is the thing that has made him never find love, develop, or find struggle as a human being. He succeeds in making the Chinaman a pitiable character just with his emoting and without the benefit of the family scenes March has. Leung has range, being able to sink into roles like this as well as stuff like Prison on Fire and action romps like Dragon Inn. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud has a nice list of visually striking, yet flawed in story films like Enemy at the Gates, The Bear and Seven Years in Tibet, and The Lover can be added to this list as yet another wonderfully visualized film that suffers on the page. The locale and period setting is great, and you really get a sense of the shambling Siagon surroundings, from the docks, to the restaurant, the school/boarding house, and his bachelors room. The film is filled with grays and browns, I think Annaud loves more neutral and dark colors considering how much they show up in his films. And, as far as the erotic-ness goes, well,... it works, their passions are conveyed; its just the rest of the emotions that fall flat.
So, its not as sleazy as, say, Wild Orchid, but its not as bold as In the Realm of the Senses. It amounts to the kind of erotic-passion film that you can plunk down on the rental/buy counter without having a red shame flush your cheeks.
The DVD: MGM presents a simple, pretty bare release of this film. However, it is the uncut, unrated, international version, previously not seen on US shores. Thank you MGM for having the good sense to do that. As far as what's different, its hard to go by memory since I saw The Lover only once previously, and so long ago, but I think I noticed a different intro and ending, as well as a few seconds here and there in the sex scenes. So, even though its not a great movie, its a good erotic movie, and because they had the decency to release it uncut, I'll give it a "Highly Recommended".
Picture- Good 16:9 enhanced widescreen, with some very minor spots and blemishes on the print every now and then. With all the dingy and exotic locales and dark lighting of the lovers room, the cinematography is well represented
Sound-5.1 Dolby Digital English and French, with optional Spanish, English, and French subs. Very good audio, although much of it seems to be looped, which I never noticed before, or maybe it was just strange to hear someone speaking English when you are used to hearing them dubbed in Cantonese.
Extras- 16 Chapters and the trailer.