[25 October 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
LUST, CAUTION (dir. Ang Lee)
Ang Lee has had an amazing career behind the camera. Seemingly unphased by sudden shifts in subject matter, he’s tackled everything from Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility), ‘70s relationships (The Ice Storm), Civil War strife (Ride with the Devil), mystical Chinese wire-fu mythos (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and full blown Hollywood popcorn fare (Hulk). He even owns an Oscar for bringing a solemn, sensitive touch to the gay cowboy drama Brokeback Mountain. Yet aside from Tiger, and his first few films, Lee has seldom focused on his Asian heritage. Indeed, some have suggested that he purposely avoids it in order to not be stereotyped by the Hollywood studios. It really shouldn’t be a concern. Even when he decides to work in his native land, as with this year’s exceptional Se, jie (translation: Lust, Caution), his vision and attention to detail set him far above any limits wrongfully inferred from his nationality.
Dealing with the Japanese occupation of Shanghai during World War II, and a band of student resistance fighters hoping to assassinate a high profile collaborator, much has been made of the film’s current NC-17 MPAA rating. Yet reducing this epic drama to a series of purposefully graphic sexual moments undermines nearly two hours of pristine narrative. It takes everything Lee establishes between his leads, all the political and personal intrigue involved, the endless sequences of mindless Mahjong, and one incorrigible girl’s coming of age, and labels it lewd and lascivious, two words far removed from Lust, Caution’s motives. Dealing with the Eros up front, Lee is clearly using it as connection and escape, a means of having his ideologically opposite characters sync up and learn the power of sacrifice and the suffering inside the human heart.
It seems strange that a story which starts off within standard espionage paradigms would end up playing out this way. When first we meet the young and naïve Wang Jiazhi (Tang Wei, absolutely amazing), she’s a wide eyed youth exploring the world for the first time. Taken in by a group of university radicals, she initially thinks making a stand means giving a good performance in a propaganda play. But when the gang targets Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chi Wai), a Chinese national working with the enemy as part of their police/prison system, she bites off more than she is capable of eschewing. The plan is simple—Jiazhi will pass herself off as a merchant’s wife, befriend Mrs. Yee (a radiant Joan Chen) and allow herself to be seduced by the notoriously adulterous adversary.
Naturally, this initial plan has its flaws, and years later, Jiazhi is recruited again, this time by better organized underground forces. With money behind her mission, and a strange inner desire to complete the cause this time around, our heroine falls into a highly erotic and physically brutal relationship with Yee. In the meanwhile, former student leader and current covert operative Kuang Yu Min waits for the proper moment to strike. His silent longing for Jiazhi is becoming a problem, though. In between, we learn about the day to day life of people under enemy rule, the complex class structures and idleness of ladies who lunch, and the blinding power of ideology, its egotistical draw, and friendless final consequence.
So clearly there is more to Lust, Caution than nudity and philosophical pillow talk. What Lee really wants to explore here is the notion of commitment, of how the fortunes (and fantasies) of many can land squarely on the shoulders of a single, easily swayed young woman. Wang Jiazhi will be our guide through all the subterfuge and strategizing, taking her role in stride while missing most of the big picture—at least, at first. The film is actually set up in two totally insular acts. Part one can best be described as misguided youthfulness exposed. Part two is maturity marred by personal/political obstacles. At the start, it is clear that Jiazhi is seduced by the implied power she carries—sexually as well as covertly. Her entire presence is the precept upon which the assassination’s success rests. Yet when plotted by individuals incapable of such calculated brutality, things turn sloppy and strained. The last scene of the film’s first hour is like a literal rite of passage. Everyone, including our heroine, must survive this surprise trial by fire—or find themselves at the business end of a bullet.
When we catch up with the characters later, life has taken some interesting twists. Jiazhi’s situation is so dire that we initially believe she’s returning to the Resistance to improve her impoverished lot. But then Lee tricks us, making the situation less about money and more about emotion. When they knew each other before, Yee and the pert object of his desire danced around their feelings in an ill-advised game of interpersonal defensiveness. By the time they meet again, desperation has become part of the ruse. Yee needs this young woman to feel alive again, and she is eager for his shelter, his power, and his control. Together, they become psychologically and physically bound, and the necessity of the relationship controls everything that happens. Clearly Lust, Caution will not end happily. Stories like these never do. But Lee leaves enough room in his narrative for lots of interpretation. We can see what happens to these characters as tragic, or we can view it as a necessary part of destiny—especially in the fragile existence of wartime.
There are some minor qualms here and there. Lee is a little too leisurely in getting to his points on several occasions. He is obviously pacing this film to magnify the scope. WWII is in the air constantly, but rarely shown. Period detail is prevalent, but aside from a random comment or two, we recognize that this story could be set in any era. It’s not merely indicative of Japan’s dominance of the Pacific in the 1940s. It could be a tale told within coming Communist rule, modern openness, or ancient feudal law. The key is the concept of oppression and treason tacked onto standard human needs like love and acceptance. Even the supporting characters do their duty as part of some perceived nationalistic need. It is only when they miscalculate and come up short that their efforts are recognized by those truly facing the enemy.
With acting that argues for the pure art of performance (both leads are exceptional) and a luxuriant visual drive, Lee has concocted a masterwork out of catty gossip, naked fury, and misplaced patriotism. While some will feel his previous works better illustrate his gift of cinema, Lust, Caution creates an unmatched statement of cinematic wisdom all its own. Clearly calculated to be both scandalous and soft, aggressive and astute, the director confirms his continued award-winning status. Recognition from his peers has done little to dull Lee’s need to explore and provoke. This slow, simmering drama may be the antithesis of a typical spy thriller, but it’s definitely this director’s aesthetic all the way.