October 18, 1993 12:00 PM

Jeremy Irons, John Lone, Barbara Sukowa

Like The Crying Game, this transvestite epic has a problem at its center: the question of how a sophisticated, mature man could carry on a prolonged, intimate relationship with a cross-dresser without realizing that his “girlfriend” is actually a man.

In this case, based on real events that occurred over a 20-year span starling in the mid-’60s, Irons plays a low-level diplomat at the French Embassy in Beijing who becomes obsessed with a Chinese opera singer, Lone, who turns out to be not only a cross-dresser but a spy trying to glean information from Irons for Chinese intelligence.

Don’t be duped by the protestations of director David Cronenberg and screenwriter David Henry Hwang, adapting his own play, that this movie is about the power of fantasy in romantic love. If it is about anything, it is about gullibility (Irons’s) and perversion (Lone’s). For one thing, Lone, skillful actor though he is, is never so convincingly irresistible as to tempt Irons away from his career or his perfectly attractive wife, the German star Sukowa. Indeed, with his broad shoulders, big hands and clunky, heavy-footed walk—not to mention his deep voice and pseudo-Dietrich intonations—Lone never even seems more than vaguely feminine.

Cronenberg, most of whose films have been sci-fi shock schlock, would seem to be the least likely director to humanize a grotesque, National Enquirer story. In the event, he handles it awkwardly, using frequent close-ups with heavy lighting that show Lone’s facial stubble. Irons’s reaction when he discovers the deception is only thinly sketched.

Even those who don’t find the Irons-Lone necking scenes repugnant are likely to be disappointed by this oblique, obtuse film’s ill-resolved ending. One suggestion for people interested in the real story: read Liaison (Bantam, $22.95) by Joyce Wadler, a meticulous new study of the bizarre case of French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and Chinese opera star Shi Pei Pu. (R)

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