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

The filming of Wong’s two encounters with the comically mechanical Liang are done so discreetly and unrevealingly and with such complete lack of feeling or passion on both sides, that if these were its only sex scenes, Lust, Caution would have to breathe hard to earn an R-rating from the MPAA. When Wong finally succeeds in getting Mr. Yee to secure a private apartment for their first liaison, she at first coquettishly resists his groping advances so that she can stage an elaborate striptease for what she expects to be a whetting of his sexual appetite and a measure of self-satisfaction in seducing him. But she barely starts taking off a stocking when he suddenly rushes up from his chair and, in effect, forcibly rapes her as if to affirm his complete mastery of her body. Nothing in his previously urbane and soft-spoken manner has prepared us for this violent act. Curiously, Wong seems finally to find amusement in her forced submission. When, at a subsequent session, he seems to want her to say that she hates him even though she is obviously deriving pleasure from their sessions together, we begin to suspect an ominous awareness in him. He says, strangely, that her saying she hates him is the one thing he can believe. He has said much earlier, long before they ever went to bed together, that in all of his conversations with people the only message he could take away from their faces and voices was one of fear. He himself was too frightened of the dark ever to go to the movies, he confided in her—much to her disappointment, because a movie-house assassination would enable the assassins to escape more easily than would an attack in the too-well-guarded streets and private dwellings.

In time the affair between Wong and Mr. Yee reaches its emotional climax and moment of truth in a jewelry shop in which Mr. Yee purchases for Wong an enormous diamond ring and lovingly places it on her finger. Moved by his tender gesture, and aware that her co-conspirators are converging on the jewelry shop to kill him, she looks deeply into his eyes and tells him to “go now.” Grasping immediately the urgency of her warning, Mr. Yee bolts out of the jewelry shop into his waiting car and orders his chauffeur to speed away. By her impetuous action, Wong has sealed her own doom, though she does not fully realize it in the warm glow of the moment.

“Why did she do it?” asks co-screenwriter James Schamus. The question is itself an admission of the impossibility of ever really answering it. And yet we ask. Another, more specific way of asking: What act does Wong Chia-Chi perform at that fateful moment in the jeweler’s shop when she decides whether or not to go through with the murder of her lover? And here, two words—act and perform—indicate the troubling questions Eileen Chang asks us: For at the crucial moment when we choose, when we decide, when we exercise free will, are we not also performing? One could say that Lust, Caution depicts a heroine who “becomes herself” only when she takes on the identity of another, for only behind the mask of the character Mak Tai Tai can Wong truly desire, and thus truly live—playacting allows her to discover her one true love. Mr. Yee doesn’t simply desire Mak Tai Tai while suspecting she is not who she says she is; it is precisely because he suspects her that he desires her. In this sense his desire is the same as hers; he wants to know her. And so lust and caution are in Chang’s work, functions of each other not because we desire what is dangerous, but because our love is, no matter how earnest, an act, and therefore always an object of suspicion.

Mr. Leung’s performance as Mr. Yee has on the whole received much more favorable reviews than the lesser known Tang Wei in the dual roles of Wong Chia-Chi and Mak Tai Tai largely because Mr. Leung’s characterization has been bracketed with the similar role he played opposite Maggie Cheung in Wong Kar-Wai’s much more highly regarded In the Mood for Love (2000), a rapturous succession of Ms. Cheung’s squeezing herself into rapturously form-fitting gossamer gowns to walk in close with the camera across narrow hotel hallways while averting an adulterous act with a similarly married would-be lover played by Mr. Leung. The implied comparison between In the Mood for Love and Lust, Caution is completely inapt in that In the Mood for Love is a triumph of sensuousness over sensuality whereas Lust, Caution is a much darker exploration of perversely fulfilled sexuality during a hellish period in human history. Perhaps I shouldn’t say “perversely” because I find Lust, Caution far less facile and more profound than Mr. Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005).