It's based on a French diplomat (no, Irons doesn't do a French accent) who falls in love with a Chinese opera singer (here called Song Liling) who fools him into thinking she is pregnant...and that she is a he. In real life, the diplomat was twenty and had only ever slept with men so one can believe that he could fool himself. This film makes the mistake of having an older and clearly more experienced diplomat (in the film he is called Rene Gallimard). Whilst in the play that this is adapted from, we can appreciate the allegory of Western arrogance and their fantasies about the Orient, it's too much of a stretch to believe that Rene, who Irons seems to play as a straight man, genuinely believes he has impregnated Song.
The trailer and film try to be like The Crying Game and yet anyone with half a brain can see that if John Lone is billed as starring and there are no other main Chinese characters, obviously he will be playing a woman. By trying to trick the viewer as well, it turns the film into what feels like a twisted joke and obscures any political themes.
Cronenberg's second mistake is to turn what seems like a cynical tale of Western illusions and Eastern stereotypes into some sort of love story. Neither character is likeable as they are both deceiving the other in multiple ways. Irons does a convincing job as a man who is completely delusional about his romance, although his character does come across as creepier than he could have done. Lone is all right but he doesn't look androgynous in any way and doesn't convince as an alluring fantasy woman at all, though he is better when playing the real Song.
This doesn't come across as a story about Rene coming to terms with his sexuality but more like a controlling arrogant man who almost deserves the cruel trick. Yet Howard Shore's score wails that this is really a love story and that we should feel sorry for self-serving Rene because he fell in love with a fantasy of a racial stereotype.
The ending comes the closest to Cronenberg horror/weirdness and Irons is quite striking in the scene but it feels tacked on to try and add some thematic weight to a plodding melodrama. Whilst the allegory might work on stage, it falls apart on screen, making me uncomfortable for none of the right reasons.