Screenwriter: James Schamus
Running Time: 157 mins
Released: Out Now!
The Taiwan-born director’s new epic opus mixing sex, espionage and political strife, showcases the union of two great talents, Hong-Kong star Tony Leung Chui Wai and newcomer Tang Wei. Adapted from a short- story by Eileen Chang, one of China’s most popular writers, the film’s set in 1942 Shangai under Japanese occupation. Young student Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) gets involved in a patriotic stage troupe and a subsequent plot to kill Mr Yee (Tony Leung), a local businessman collaborating with the Japanese-ruled government of Wang Jingwei. Chia Chi’s task is to gain Yee’s confidence by becoming his lover. Three years after a failed attempt that ends in blood, she succeeds. However, subjugated by their love-making, her certainties waver and her loyalties become tangled.
Lust, Caution is all about make-believe and double meanings. The translation of the Chinese title itself misses most of the sense of the original. The Shanghainese words “lust” and “lost” are homophones, which raises the central tryst to an existential dimension. The lovers’ sexual abandon is a death sentence. At the same time, in an over-controlled environment compelling them to constant pretence and repression, sex is the only way for Yee and Chia Chi to feel, whether it’s rapture, anger or sorrow.
The second part of the title signifies warning and renunciation, while also alluding to the ring to be worn by Chia Chi. Yee, suave and chilling, embodies this duality. Aware that Chia Chi might be a spy, he never drops his guard. At the same time he’s on the verge of partially renouncing safety and power for her. As for Chia Chi, she’s the true giver who sacrifices herself, dropping all previous plans and beliefs out of honesty.
The war is both ubiquitous and virtually unseen. Ang Lee eloquently films long Mah-Jong sequences in which close-ups on Yee’s wife (Joan Chen) and her guests, quietly gossiping and complaining about war hardships in luxurious surroundings, convey the occupation’s brutality and paranoia. The crowd scenes in beautifully recreated 1940s Shanghai and Hong-Kong are peppered with Japanese uniforms on the watch. Yee’s handsome yet emotionless face is that of a man who’s traded his soul for his skin, and “is a bigger whore” than Chia Chi says she is. The young woman’s co-conspirators, eager to risk her life while blabbering endlessly about preposterous plans, are trapped in a conflict beyond their capability to solve.
Amidst the oppressive unrest, lust is as closely bound to caution as the lovers’ climax is to their fear of being found out or betrayed. Consequently, Ang Lee’s staging of the much discussed sex scenes is uncompromising. Unglamorous and disturbing (the first scene between Yee and Chia Chi equals a rape), these deceptively short episodes boldly communicate the sound and the fury long buried in characters who never are what they seem, and never can tell how they feel. You can almost smell the sweat and tears. Tang Wei is convincing both as an ingénue and a Mata-Hari, while Tony Leung’s chilling portrait of a serial traitor oscillates between detachment, sadism and sadness. Graphic and clumsy, sex in Lust, Caution is the only outlet for emotional turmoil, as opposed to a seedy commodity. Yee and Chia Chi’s conflicting moments in love replicate the cry of a torn nation.
The story at the heart of Lust, Caution is as troubled and restrained as Brokeback Mountain’s was outspoken and pure. It may not give itself away willingly, even after two and a half hours, but once you’re immersed in it you won’t want it to end. Hats off to Ang Lee for his brave new move on the chessboard of passion!