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.”
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).