Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Wei Tang, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Joan Chen, Lee-Hom Wang, Chung Hua Tou, Chih-ying Chu, Ying-hsien Kao, Yue-Lin Ko, Johnson Yuen, Kar Lok Chin
MPAA Rating: (for some explicit sexuality)
Running Time: 2:37
Release Date: 9/28/07 (limited); 10/5/07 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik
Ang Lee's Lust, Caution (Se, jie), a meditative, melancholy account of wartime espionage, tells the story of innocence corrupted, but what other choice could there be? There's the rub that makes the simple concept of Lee's tale much more complex, richer, and ultimately tragic than it first sounds. Methodically paced and meticulously plotted, the film follows the path from optimistic, youthful idealism to revolutionary, murderous yet honorable intentions. It's a story of small victories that come at high costs with the end result still nothing less than the ruin of a mind, body, and spirit. It's a depressing film, yes, but Lee infuses the material with such confident subtlety and tonal sleight-of-hand that the conclusion is never a forgone one. Based on a short story by Eileen Chang, the script by James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang shrinks the larger geopolitical conflict of the Second Sino-Japanese War to the experience of a young woman who sacrifices everything by becoming the willing but uninformed, naïve tool of men with weaker hearts but stronger wills. Her transition from the safety of a college student to the peril of a spying temptress happens in the blink of an eye, and yet, she only comes to the realization of that fact when it is far too late to go back.
The woman is Wong Chia Chi (Wei Tang in a stunning, fearless debut), but when we first meet her, she is known as Mrs. Mak. In Shanghai, 1942, Mak plays Mahjong with a group of wives at the rich home inside the protected Japanese compound of Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen), whose husband (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) works for the government the Japanese have established in the city. The women discuss the problems of rationing ("Rice is more valuable than gold," one mentions) and their husbands when Mr. Yee enters. He has work to do and cannot join them, and Mak must go out for business with her husband. Yee's job brings him to a dim, dank basement; the Japanese are looking for someone. Meanwhile, Mak visits a cafe, orders, and goes to the phone. She dials, lets it ring once, and hangs up. Again, she calls and talk to someone named "Second Brother." Somewhere else in the city, the man on the phone Kuang Yu Min (Lee-Hom Wang) and some others get guns ready. Mak sits down again, and we see her, still known as Chia Chi, four years prior in Hong Kong. Yu Min has started a drama club to raise money for the resistance movement, and Chia Chi joins.
It starts harmlessly enough. The group puts on a pro-China play that causes an uproar within the audience, chanting after Chia Chi's character shouts, "China will not fall." The outcome is huge; donations pour in. Someone suggests the group charges for the show. Chia Chi is suddenly an important part of the group, and considering her family situation, that kind of attention and friendship is vital to her. Her father left China with her brother for England and doesn't have the financial capacity for Chia Chi to come. At least, that's what he tells her, but after she receives a letter from him telling her he has just gotten remarried, Chia Chi sits in a movie theater watching Intermezzo and sobbing. Those feelings of abandonment and longing for interpersonal relationships have to play a pivotal role in her next choice—a decision that eventually brings her to the position in which we see her as the film opens—and every other choice she makes afterwards. Kuang assembles the drama group for a meeting; it's time to do more for the resistance than put on plays. There's news about Yee, a Chinese traitor for the Japanese, and Kuang's plan ends with the turncoat's murder.
To achieve that end, Chia Chi will pretend to be Mrs. Mak, the wife of a wealthy businessman, who will help the Yees become accustomed to Hong Kong. The plan also starts harmlessly, with Chia Chi taking Mrs. Yee out shopping, while Kuang and the others determine when Yee is least guarded. Chia Chi is taken in to the officials' wives' inner circle, and after sideways looks from Yee, she slyly gives him her phone number. Soon, they are out at dinner, flirtations passing with every glance. He says small talk like theirs is an pleasant escape from his normal life and also lets slip that he's afraid of the dark, which, for what we know and come to know about him, means he's afraid of being powerless. There's the setup of a power struggle here that comes even more into focus as their relationship progresses. Kuang, the rest of the group, and especially Chia Chi realize that Yee's seeming infatuation with her is the best route to exploit. After preparation that ends up fruitless, fate sends things awry, and there's an impulsive, stumbling murder. All seems lost, but it returns with larger stakes, more dangers, and an emotional quagmire that makes Chia Chi's flirtations with Yee by comparison mere child's play.
Lee shifts the tone here by the third act from intriguing espionage to psychological retrospection. Kuang has moved up in the resistance movement and admits how misguided their initial plan was, and as their plot to kill Yee matures, Chia Chi and Yee's relationship intensifies immensely. It's presented in the form of three sex scenes, which the MPAA has dubbed "explicit" enough to warrant an NC-17 rating; they are explicit on two levels. First, they're graphic. Far from gratuitous, though, the scenes show the progression of the affair, make us question the emotional ties the two have with each other, and display their respective attempts at gaining power. He starts off dominating, but in a simple act by the end of the affair, she ends up in control. What the relationship means to each of them is both the key to the plan's end and the ultimate mystery here. The script leaves the resolution until the last moment (even then it's uncertain), but Lee's retrospective tone keeps us focused on the things lost in the process. When a former potential lover finally makes an advance on Chia Chi, she can only ask, "Why couldn't you have done that three years ago?"
This is a beautiful but gloomy, intricate but lucid film. Lee is in top form with Lust, Caution, delving into the psychological drives of the characters and presenting a specific examination of the trials of war and deception on the person. A late flashback to that moment in the theater, when the things that could have been became irrelevant, solidifies the point: Dreams that never could have been of an infancy of adulthood that never was.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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