Marguerite Duras's gauzy, wispy autobiographical novel of forbidden passion in 1920s Indochina has been turned into this gauzy, wispy, pretty movie. March is a teenage French girl ferrying across the Mekong River on her way to boarding school after a visit to her colonialist family. Leung, a wealthy, indolent 32-year-old Chinese, watches from his car, transfixed by the girl's beauty.
Tentatively he offers her a ride to school in his limousine. She accepts, and their affair begins. From the start they are both aware of limitations. As a Caucasian, she could never be openly involved with a Chinese man; besides, she will soon return to France. He insists he could never marry a nonvirgin, and in any case he is betrothed. Hut while Leung is open in his love, March behaves as if it is a game, a way to make money for her mother and brothers who are living in poverty (he even pays off her brother's opium debts).
There is an erotic charge to the pair's first sexual encounter. (Later couplings look like something out of a Calvin Klein ad.) But as the affair progresses, there doesn't seem to be a buildup of passion, let alone love. Leung is just right as a man weakened by his wealth. March, a model, brings little to the role that makes credible her future as a great writer, a claim made for the character in a voice-over read by Jeanne Moreau. (R)