Lust, Caution (Se, jie) / Constance Howes
Film Reviews | October 19, 2007 | Comments ()
Ang Lee is one of my favorite directors. He is detailed, poetic and supremely smart in his film craft. What I appreciate most about his work, however, is that his storytelling is patient; building moment by moment, character by character, and event by event with an unbridled appreciation for the power of silence and the weight of the subtext. I imagine one could find this attitude tedious or even boring, but unlike the neon, neurotic film quality of other detail-oriented directors, Lee’s efforts seem masterfully sane. I know, I’m gushing. I can’t help it. I’ve been anticipating Lust, Caution for quite a while and I’m happy to report that it was well worth the wait. Though the film is stubbornly long and a dark, melodramatic account of people far too skilled at deceit but fatally ill-equipped to suffer the emotional consequences of such masquerades, it still manages to be totally watchable. Of course, you’re all wondering what’s up with the whole NC-17 sexiness scandal and Ang’s artsy refusal to change one hair on his film’s…er, head. Well, we’ll get there.
Lust, Caution (Se, jie) is based on the same-named short story by Eileen Chang published in 1950. Both works are set in World War II and witness the attempts of a small, slapdash group of student resistance fighters to assassinate a powerful compatriot supporter of the Japanese occupation. Tang Wei (in a “this girl better win every damn acting award in existence or I’m definitely going to be ticked” debut performance) plays Wong Chia Chi (or Wang Jiazhi), a demure student at the University of Hong Kong who is recruited by spitfire Kuang Yu Min (Lee-Hom Wang) to perform the female lead in a politically-themed school play. Both Kuang and Wong Chia Chi’s lives are defined by the ongoing war: Kuang’s older brother was killed in battle prompting his mother to forbid her younger son from joining the army, while the death of Chia Chi’s mother left her abandoned by her British father and in the care of chilly, Chinese relatives.
The gang’s heavy-handed nationalistic play tugs patriotic heartstrings and brings the audience to it’s feet with passionate cries of “China will not fail!” but mostly serves to spark a bonfire of rebellion within the acting group itself. Not content to simply stage the wartime suffering, Kuang suggests they do their part to end it by offing Japanese collaborator, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai). The kids infiltrate Mr. Yee’s world as actors by pal-ing around with one of his subordinates and assuming false identities. Cantonese country girl, Chia Chi becomes Mak Tai Tai, the fictional wife of a wealthy Hong Kong exporter. Though she successfully wins the trust of both Yee and his wife, she finds that her role is complicated when Yee’s attentions turn sexual. Suddenly, she is thrust into a very real, very seedy adulthood without much of a previous identity to cling to. Tang Wei reads this role impeccably. Ang Lee has her smoking cigarettes, walking across rooms and pushing back window curtains true to introspective form, but the simple change of expression in her eyes and posture sells the transformation from child to woman in an unbeatable instant. Tang Wei is, like someone announced loudly during the movie credits, “breathtaking.”
When the first assassination attempt is abruptly and brutally botched, the group has no choice but to fade into obscurity and wait for another chance. Chia Chi, stripped of her youthful naiveté, struggles with her now empty identity and wanders blearily through the next three years. When Kuang Yu Min tracks her down for round two of “kill the bad guy,” he is backed by the actual resistance who offer training, professional forgeries and much higher stakes. Chia Chi appears almost grateful to reenter the ruse. Soon enough, Mak Tai Tai is back in both the Yee’s home and good graces. She plays endless games of Mah Jong with the wives of the Hong Kong elite and feeds any pertinent chit chat back to the resistance in hopes of tracking, and ultimately killing, Yee. Her efforts prove to be virtually impossible since Yee is “an old wolf” who keeps his cards close to, nay, inside his chest and Chia Chi is forced to step up the farce or risk not only another failure, but also her own life. This is about the time when the sexy stuff really comes into play. Lee apparently had a doozy of a time with censorship. He didn’t back down for the US despite being slapped with a needless NC-17 rating, but it seems he actually cut out some of the racy stuff for public release in China, which really is a shame.
Lust, Caution is incredibly graphic, but each sexual act (there are three distinct encounters) characterizes Mak Tai Tai’s relationship with Yee in a way that dialogue could never hope to. Yee’s initial sexual sadism and ferocity turns comparatively kittenish as Chia Chi / Mak Tai Tai slowly, but surely, ensnares him. Each embrace, look, sexual position and sound during their infidelity lends necessary weight to their carefully constructed relationship. When the power balance shifts for good and Chia Chi realizes that she has irrevocably become Mak Tai Tai, the audience is privy to the why of it in no uncertain terms. The mere implication of a sex life would not have accurately conveyed why Chia Chi would trade to her true identity for a fictional one. In a moment of weakness, our heroine explains to Kuang in half simile, half truth: “He’s (Yee) like a snake that is working itself into my heart.”
With the rich film color, the intimate, shadow portraits and the wide panoramic shots of culturally clashed China Lust, Caution is a fortress of visual snackitude. I felt guilty at times for gazing at Mrs. Yee’s (Joan Chen) impossibly delicate tea set, Mak Tai Tai’s silk Quipao dresses and the dusty, rickshaw laden streets of war torn Hong Kong instead of the subtitles. It was worth it, though. I suppose Lust, Caution might not be a perfect movie, but it came close. Even after 2 1/2 long hours and a whole bottle of water, the end still found me incredibly invested, clenching the arms of my seat and listening to whispered cries in the audience of “No! Don’t say it,” and “Hurry!”
Constance Howes is a book critic for Pajiba and a graphic designer living in Philadelphia. Her hobbies include making out and messing shit up. In short, she’s a firecracker. She blogs over at I Love You in the Face.