Film

Lust, Caution (Se, jie)

The primary question in Lust, Caution (Se, jie) is: "What is real?"


Lust, Caution (Se, jie)

Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Tang Wei, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Joan Chen, Wang Lee-Hom
MPAA rating: NC-17
Studio: Focus Features
First date: 2007
UK Release Date: 2008-01-04 (General release)
US Release Date: 2007-09-28 (Limited release)
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.

8

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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