She felt a kind of chilling premonition of failure, like a long snag in a silk stocking, silently creeping up her body.
— Zhang Ailing, “Lust, Caution”
The primary question in Lust, Caution (Se, jie) is: “What is real?” The answers, nebulous and harsh, are suffused with cigarette smoke and punctuated by clacking mahjong tiles. A WWII melodrama set mostly in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, Ang Lee’s film follows two lovers caught between the titular modes of feeling, pursuing and resisting one another, discovering and losing themselves.
These lovers could not be more different on their surfaces. Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), the brutally efficient head of Shanghai’s secret police, is drawn to Mak Tai Tai (Tang Wei), lovely young wife of a businessman who spends most of his time out town. Espying her at one of his wife’s (Joan Chen) mahjong games, Yee pauses almost imperceptibly, taken aback, and then retreats, back to the shadowy sanctuary of his study, where he keeps his ledgers of those Chinese he has investigated, arrested, and executed. He has an order in mind and a job to do, neither of which he shares with Mrs. Yee or anyone else.
Yee’s stoicism is his refuge, though he seethes with rage and resentment (indicated by the slightest glances and gestures in Leung’s devastating performance, revealed in Rodrigo Prieto’s splendid cinematography). What he can’t know, though you do, is that Mak Tai Tai is not who she seems, but is instead Wong Chia Chi, a Chinese patriot determinedly insinuating herself into his life precisely to set him up for assassination. And what Wong doesn’t articulate, though you observe it, is that she is increasingly confused by the roles she plays, from student and actress to spy and lover.
Wong begins her adventure as a girl, literally in school uniform. She’s motivated to join an actors’ troupe partly by her attraction to its earnest leader Kuang (Wong Lee-Hom). They decide against Ibsen in favor of a patriotic play, and Wong’s first night hooks her forever: when her convincing performance and seemingly real tears inspire the audience to join in her character’s rousing last cry (“China will not fail!”), she’s hooked. So, when Kuang and the others conjure a more ambitious use for their talents, to trap and kill the minister Yee, she goes along.
Her initial encounters with Yee are promising: it’s clear that he’s moved by her, accompanying her to the tailors so she can oversee the modifications to a new suit (“The close-fitting collar,” she notes, “is the latest look”). As they discuss their interests and yearnings over a secret dinner, Wong’s performance ironically allows her to voice assorted truths, to seek out her own feelings. “Men,” she observes, “have many distractions. We ladies have only shopping and mahjong.” She is bored with playing the wife, but she is also excited by the lies. The possibility that she will seduce this powerful man suggests she is herself powerful, not just shopping, but affecting her nation’s history and future.
And then the plan is over — or so it seems. Yee is relocated, the acting troupe disbanded, and Wong left standing on breadlines, like thousands of other Chinese citizens. She misses the scary thrills of their amateurish scheming, and, no small thing, has lost her virginity in at least two ways. Not only has she slept with one of her fellows in order to prepare for the encounter with Yee, but she has also witnessed a horrific stabbing, committed by the actors to protect their secret identities (this scene is extraordinary, a genuinely awful murder, not at all competent or climactic).
When the chance to resume the assassination plot comes up, this time supervised by “official” resistance leaders, Wong again goes along. Some three years after the first failed effort, she is outfitted in expensive dresses, gossips with Mrs. Yee, and glances furtively at Mr. Yee from across the mahjong table. Again, she can dab expensive perfume behind her ears and ride in hired cars. She can imagine herself someone else, she can even imagine herself in love with Yee. For they share not only a mutual, crucial deceit, but they also share a disturbing intimacy, based on lies but also on real emotions — fear, desire, and lust. “If you pay attention,” he tells her, “nothing is trivial.” Indeed, the smallest dishonesties are also the most profound.
Wong’s dedication to her cause is, the movie proposes, shaped by self-delusion as much as a pursuit of truth. Not only do she and her fellow actors believe in the absolute good of their self-appointed mission, but they also believe in the absolute evil of their prey. And yet, as Wong crosses emotional and moral borders during her performance, you see the problems with making such black-and-white distinctions. It’s not that Yee can be forgiven for his crimes, but that her own identity and work are also fraught with grey. Her deceptions make her feel like a prostitute, a role with which Yee can identify. Tragically and tellingly, Kuang can’t comprehend her feelings. He does, however, come to feel a mix of guilt, jealousy, and vague judgment, as he begins to fall in love with Wong, though of course, he never tells her (his manipulations are perhaps more unsettling than Yee’s, because he thinks himself honorable).
As the men work their angles and Wong seeks a measure of self-control, Lust, Caution has garnered attention for its explicit sex scenes. Several are not only graphic, but also violent, illustrating Yee’s cruelty and confusion (he’s desperate to feel powerful, much like Wong) as well as Wong’s need to feel intimate with him, even at the cost of her well-being. But these scenes also serve a thematic purpose, in the questions they raise about what’s “real” in sex performed for films that are not designated “pornography.” At the same time, the sex scenes provide moments of sincere connection for Wong and Yee: they see one another as “real” when they engage in sweaty, acrobatic acts, taking emotional risks they don’t take at any other time. Vulnerable and aggressive, their closeness in these moments is unsafe but also, for them, the most safe they feel. (“What if I told you I hated you?” she asks as they begin one assignation. “I believe you,” he says.)
In these scenes, the sex is plot, not just a break for lush scoring and pretty bodies on display, as it is in most movies. This plot, so urgent and pained, dooms both partners. When Wong at last articulates her suffering for Kuang and their resistance cell leader, Old Wu (Chung Hua Tou), they can’t begin to absorb what she’s telling them. “For an agent,” insists Old Wu, “there’s only one thing: loyalty.” Unlike Yee, who forces his way “into [her] heart,” her so-called compatriots are visibly flummoxed by her description of the sex and her own violent fantasies (she imagines shooting Yee herself, “his blood and brains all over me”). Old Wu asserts, “Keep him hooked and keep me informed.”
And so Wong is lost, even as she thinks herself found. While thematic points are both weighty and obvious (patriotism produces prostitutes, war is motivated by money, betrayal leads to revelation), Wong’s anguish and sudden understanding provide this sometimes lugubrious, often fascinating thriller’s most chilling moment.