In the Mood for Lust! Ang Lee’s Steamy War Picture Is the Most Honest Political Flick in Years

Running time 157 minutes
Directed by Ang Lee
Written by Wang Hui Ling and James Schamus
Starring Tang Wei and Tony Leung

Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, from a screenplay by Wang Hui Ling and James Schamus, based on a short story by Eileen Chang, seems to have been discounted by many reviewers because of its extremely explicit sex scenes. These scenes are certainly steamy enough to make the old Production Code Poohbahs roll over in their graves. Yet these envelope-pushing expressions of carnal passion are also very astutely character-revealing in a manner consistent with the horribly brutal and treacherous period in world history with which Lust, Caution is profoundly involved in both its literary and cinematic forms.

The point is that there is a massive misunderstanding involved in the suggestion that the movie is in any way a trivial exploitation of a trivial story of little political or social significance. Ironically, this was a charge leveled at Eileen Chang (1920-1995) by the left-leaning Shanghai literati of the 1940’s, during which time Shanghai and much of China were occupied by the Japanese, with the help of Chinese puppet government officials. Chang’s own husband was both a collaborationist and a philanderer, and she consequently soon divorced him. I said “ironically” a few sentences ago because Chang’s own bitter experiences made her much more aware of the perverse twists of human nature in times of political chaos than did her one-sidedly sloganeering literary critics of the left. Actually, Chang was a more tellingly insidious social analyst with her endless mah-jongg games than were her foolishly idealistic literary contemporaries.

As a consequence, Lust, Caution is one of the few honestly observant political films, totally devoid of retrospective feel-good propaganda, that I have seen in years, and its characters are thereby perceptively portrayed all the way through to the almost unbearably bitter end of the narrative. The reconstruction of 1940’s Shanghai that Mr. Lee and his skilled collaborators have achieved on a huge Shanghai soundstage plunged me into a world and a time I knew very little about beforehand, and made me a witness to a pair of remarkable character studies, of two chillingly unromantic sexual partners. To make matters even more deviously complicated, one of the partners has a double identity. A patriotic college student named Wong Chia-Chi (Tang Wei) masquerades as a married woman named Mak Tai Tai in a naïve student plot to first seduce and then assassinate a prominent collaborationist official named Mr. Yee (Tony Leung).

That is quite simply all there is to the essence of the narrative, the bare bones, if you will. If one doesn’t accept the initial premise that radically inclined young people in China, Europe or the United States are capable of monumental follies when they confront an evil occupying force assisted by paranoid, resourceful and treacherous traitors in their midst, then Lust, Caution may seem boring and improbable. My own reaction was quite different. Of course, I have never found myself in such a situation, but Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America, about Charles Lindbergh and his America Firsters’ winning the 1940 election over Franklin D. Roosevelt, has given me at least a familiar parallel with the situation in which Chang wrote her drenched-with-irony short story, which Mr. Lee and his writers have labored valiantly to transfer to the screen in fleshed-out images and audible dialogue and sounds faithful to the comparatively cryptic clues in the Chang story.

In the film’s production notes, Mr. Lee describes the challenge: “To me, no writer has ever used the Chinese language so cruelly as Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang) and no story of hers is as beautiful or as cruel as Lust, Caution. … Making our film, we didn’t really ‘adapt’ Zhang’s work, we simply kept returning to her theater of cruelty and love until we had enough to make a movie of it. Zhang is very specific in the traps the words set. For example, in Chinese we have the figure of the tiger who kills a person. Thereafter the person’s ghost willingly works for the tiger helping to lure more prey into the jungle. The Chinese phrase for this is wei hudzuo chung. It’s a common phrase and was often used to refer to the Chinese who collaborated with the Japanese occupiers during the war. In the story, Zhang has Yee allude to this relationship between men and women. Alive, Chia-Chi was his woman; dead, she is his ghost, his chung.”

When it is decided by Wong’s student cell that she reciprocate Mr. Yee’s clear interest in her by going to bed with him, her maidenly virginity suddenly becomes an obstacle to the assassination plot inasmuch as her cover story in getting into the social circle of Mr. Yee’s wife, Yee Tai Tai (Joan Chen), is that she is supposedly married to “Little Mak,” a fictitious businessman who is always traveling abroad to Singapore and other Asian locations. Hence, it is decided, with Wong’s consent, that in her new identity as Mak Tai Tai she should be initiated into a plausibly married state by one of her circle, Liang Jun Sheng (Ko Yu Lien), the only one with “experience,” albeit “only with whores.”

In the Mood for Lust! Ang Lee’s Steamy War Picture Is the Most Honest Political Flick in Years