“Lust, Caution” - Ang Lee (2007)

Ang Lee’s” tense drama Lust, Caution (Sè, Jiè, 2007) has drawn a variety of critical responses.  Indeed the film encompasses a number of topics and styles – history, politics, romance, erotica, psychology, etc. – and these can generate different reactions on various levels.  This film about some Chinese resistance efforts during the devastating Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) is based on Eileen Chang’s moving novella Lust, Caution (1979) [1], which is equally multi-faceted.  Eileen Chang (aka Zhang Ailing), who is one of my favorite authors, lived in Hong Kong and Shanghai during this hectic war period that led to the deaths of millions [2], and her writing reflects on how those circumstances impinged on human consciousness.  And in this connection, I also recommend for your reading her famous story “Love in a Fallen City” (“Qing Cheng Zhi Lia”, 1943).

The story of Lust, Caution focuses on a young woman who is recruited to join a Chinese resistance plot to assassinate a high figure in the Chinese puppet government working for the occupying Japanese.  It is her job to seduce the assassination target and lure him to a place free from his security guards where he can be murdered.  Along the way, we get a glimpse into the complexity of her feelings as they evolve over the course of the plot.

Lee’s film follows the basic elements of Chang’s story closely, but in order to provide more background for the plot, it expands on the earlier conspiratorial elements of the plotters, and this occupies much of the first half of the film.  In general, Lee seems to be trying to evoke the psychological mood of Chang’s story, but he pursues his quest with different, more visual, means.  This led to some critics, particularly in the US, complaining that the film was too slow (it runs more than two-and-a-half hours) before it reaches its disturbing denouement.  In addition, Lee introduced some viscerally graphic violent sequences that were not part of Chang’s more internally focused tale.  These scenes include a horrifically bloody murder of a Chinese collaborator with the Japanese, as well as some very explicit and aggressive sexual scenes involving the two principal characters.  The explicit sex scenes attracted (or distracted) a lot of the public’s attention and led to the film being rated NC-17 (adults only) in the United States. In my view these graphic scenes were perhaps over-cooked, but they do contribute to the overall conflicting moods of the story.

Nevertheless, and despite the various critical misgivings about the film, Lust, Caution won the Golden Lion for best film at the 2007 Venice Film Festival and was a big hit worldwide, particularly in Asia.  This is because in my view the film moodily captures the evolving and conflicting feelings of its main characters. 

The success of this telling is heavily dependent on the film’s well-crafted production values. In particular the cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto maintains intimacy by using extensive closeups of the main characters.  Besides showing the subtle emotive states of these characters, this evokes an almost claustrophobic feeling of confinement that seems to constrain the autonomy of these figures.  This effort of cinematic confinement is on several occasions carried to far, though, as Prieto’s camera, holding to closeup compositions, sometimes nervously pans around the room following random movements of various characters.  This agitated panning doesn’t work, because there is no narrative perspective for the shots, i.e. the narrative “unseen witness” of the camera is not appropriately motivated. Nevertheless, the overall atmosphere of environmental confinement is effectively evoked. 

Another key production element is the musical score by multiple award-winning composer Alexandre Desplat. This unobtrusively creates just the right emotional tone for the film’s evolving mood.

A third key production component concerns the acting performances of the film’s two leads –  Wei Tang and Tony Chiu-Wai Leung.  Much of the time they convey their feelings not through words but through expressive reaction shots that seem to convey rising sentiments and evolving, sometimes hesitantly, held affections.  And both of these performances are excellent.  Wei Tang was a relative newcomer, but Tony Leung’s expressive reticence has long highlighted the Hong Kong film scene, notably in Days of Being Wild (1990). Chungking Express (1994), Ashes of Time (1994), Happy Together (1997), In the Mood for Love (2000), Hero (2002), and 2046 (2004).

There are several key thematic elements in the film, but one of the most important ones is that of role-playing.  We are all constantly being cast into multiple, parallel narratives in our lives involving multiple roles, and these multiple roles overlap in our inner selves and collectively affect who we are.  For example the character Wong Chia Chi (played by Wei Tang) plays the following distinct roles:
  • College Student.
    In the beginning she is just “herself”, a teenager who moves from Japanese-occupied Shanghai to Hong Kong and enters college there.
  • Member of Subversive Resistance Cell.
    Subsequently Wong Chia Chi becomes a member of a secret resistance group working to kill high-level figures who work for the Japanese occupiers.
  • Socialite Housewife
    As a subversive agent, she masquerades as Mak Tai Tai (Mrs. Mak), the wife of an imaginary wealthy businessman Mr. Mak, so that she can join the social circle of Yee Tai Tai, the wife of her assassination target.
  • Secret Lover
    Once she meets her targeted victim, Mr. Yee, she commences a clandestine sexual affair with the man, which of course must be kept secret from everybody.
We see Wong Chia Chi move between the separate roles and the cumulative effect these various masks have on her.  Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) has his multiple roles, too – Chinese government official, agent for the Japanese invaders, husband, and secret extra-marital lover.

The story of Lust, Caution passes through four stages, the first of which is actually a foreshadowed segment of the last.

1.  Japanese-occupied Shanghai, 1942
The first stage shows scenes that will only become clear later.  Mak Tai Tai (Wei Tang) is shown playing mahjong at the home of Yee Tai Tai (Joan Chen) and some other members of the hostess’s well-to-do social circle.  Yee Tai Tai’s husband, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), shows up, and he appears to exchange a momentary meaningful glance with Mak Tai Tai.  She then excuses herself from the game and goes outside into a restaurant in town, where she makes an obscure telephone call to some armed people who are evidently preparing themselves for a murderous mission.  What all this means will only become clear near the end of the film.

2.  Shanghai - Hong Kong, 1938
The film now moves to a flashback four years earlier.  The Japanese have taken over Shanghai, and the people there are suffering under the suddenly destitute conditions.  A young woman, Wong Chia Chi (Wei Tang) makes it to war-free Hong Kong and enrols in a university there as a drama student.  She quickly joins a theater group headed by a charismatic young director, Kuang Yu Min (Leehom Wang), who is a passionate Chinese patriot.  After staging a successful patriotic play starring Wong Chia Chi, Kuang reveals to his theater group his more ambitious and radical ambition – to recruit them into forming an underground resistance group that will assassinate high-level Chinese collaborators of the Japanese.  Their first target will be Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), who works in Hong Kong as an agent for the Chinese puppet government that is overseen by the Japanese in occupied China. 

Because of Wong Chia Chi’s beauty and acting talents, she is setup to be the married seductress, Mak Tai Tai, who is to get to know Mrs. Yee and then ultimately lure Mr. Yee into a place where he will be unaccompanied by his bodyguards.  Wong Chia Chi’s commitment to her cause is tested when she learns that her lack of sexual experience will have to be corrected by having some training “practice” with one of her more experienced co-conspirators. 

In the event, their murder plan almost works, but it has to be called off at the last minute.  The resistance group then quickly learns that Yee has been transferred to Shanghai, and their assassination plans have to be abandoned.

At this point in the film, there is a bloody encounter with Tsao, a Chinese Japan-collaborationist who had earlier introduced Kuang Yu Min to Mr. Yee and who has now discovered that Kuang and his mates were not who they claimed to be.  This confrontation results in Tsao’s violent death at the hands of Kuang and his group, and afterwards they have to disband and go their separate ways.  It is a horrifically gory scene full of blood, and it was not part of Eileen Chang’s original story.  Although it does add additional gritty reality to the conspirators’ passionate commitment to their cause, I don’t believe Lee’s insertion of this material was necessary or effective.  Nevertheless, the film’s other virtues are enough to compensate for this defect. 

3.  Shanghai, 1942
The scene now shifts ahead several years to the Shanghai setting seen in the film’s opening stage.  Wong Chia Chi has returned from Hong Kong, and on the street she happens to run into Kuang Yu Min, who informs her that he has moved to Shanghai and is now a secret agent for the Kuomintang (Nationalist Chinese) government still ruling the China that is unoccupied.  Kuang has always seemed to have an unspoken romantic interest in Wong, but circumstances have always gotten in the way of their taking things further.  When they connect again this time, Kuang tells her that he is still intent on assassinating Mr. Yee, who he tells her is now head of the puppet government’s secret police.  Kuang reassembles his assassination team, and again Wong Chia Chi is recruited as the seductress of Mr. Yee. 

In short order Wong Chia Chi resumes her former fake identity as Mak Tai Tai, and she is reintroduced to Mrs. Yee’s social circle.  She also resumes her clandestine relationship with Mr. Yee, and now it becomes more serious.  They are soon engaging in intense sexual trysts which seem only to serve the physical lusts of the two participants. 

For his part Yee seems almost to be a sadistic misogynist, but Wong, herself, also indulges in her role as a lustful prostitute to the hilt.  These explicit and extended scenes embellish Chang’s story, and they have attracted much attention.  But they do fit into the overall narrative themes of Lee’s film.  As Wong engages in what is initially just purely deceptive role-playing, her self-satisfying lustful pleasures seem to leak over into and overlap with her other personae. She starts developing real feelings for Yee.  On one occasion Wong soulfully sings and dances a love song for Yee, and this elicits tears from the usually poker-faced Yee.  What was initially just self-gratification is now turning to real attachment.

4.  Conclusion
The film now moves to scenes that encompass what was shown at the beginning of the film – the planned assassination attempt on Mr. Yee.  Yee and Wong are privately visiting a jeweler from whom Yee is purchasing a large diamond for Wong.  At the last moment, Wong, almost as if she is listening to a hidden voice inside her, quietly warns Yee to run away, and the ever-cautious Yee takes heed and flees the scene.  This leads to the tragic finale depicting the obliteration of Wong and her resistance colleagues.

One might say that there are two main themes that underlie Lust, Caution.  One concerns the provocative notion that physical lust can, thanks to the way our compartmentalized inner personae overlap with each other, lead to personal intimacy.  This is the opposite of the way things are conventionally supposed to evolve, where growing personal intimacy can gradually lead to physical (i.e. sexual) intimacy. In Lust, Caution this reverse direction of lust –> personal intimacy is what has been most conspicuous to the public and has attracted the most critical attention.

But it is another, more general, theme that I find even more compelling, and that one concerns the way we make efforts to compartmentalize our private personae so that they can operate freely within the scope of separate partitioned narratives.  Yee was obsessed with the need for secrecy – the need to protect his separate narratives from having any contact with each other.  Wong Chia Chi, for her part, also tried to keep her inner personae separate, but in the end her authentic self asserted itself and invoked a more unified sense of who she was.  For this she paid the highest price.  But if we think about our basic existential goals in life, isn’t this what we ultimately live for?

So although the lust theme attracted the most media attention, it is the caution theme that is the more fascinating. And it is under its spell that we are drawn into Ang Lee’s vision of Eileen Chang’s moody and fatalistic story of existential confinement and release. 

  1. Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing), Lust, Caution, (1979), Anchor Books, Random House (2007).
  2. “Second Sino-Japanese War”, New World Encyclopedia, (26 August 2015).   

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