Reel Review: Lust, Caution - Aseem Chhabra
Ang Lee / English/ 157 minutes
Two-thirds into Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s new film Lust, Caution, the film’s two principles meet secretly in mid-afternoon, in a dusty room in Shanghai. The two – Mr. Yee (played by the 46 year-old Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Wong Chia Chi (a young, 28 yearold newcomer Wei Tang) have been playing a sexual cat and mouse game through most of the film.
Wong is dropped at the building by Yee’s driver. She walks up to the designated room and looks around in silence only to be startled by seeing Yee sitting in a chair watching her. The two are finally together – Yee, the older married man and Wong, a woman with duplicitous intentions.
Suddenly he grabs her violently, slams her against a wall, rips her dress, and then throws her on the bed. He pulls off his belt, hits her a few times, and then ties up her hands, at the same time unbuttoning his fly. The woman screams and yells out loudly, but the man has all the power over her. He finally releases her hands, but continues to dominate her in what appears to be nothing short of a rape. The woman may have come into the room willingly, but the sexual violence that ensues changes the tone of the afternoon.
It is an exceptionally difficult scene to watch, especially given that the audience had gotten used to the two characters’ playful flirtations, parting glances over a game of mahjong, shopping trips and long lazy afternoons in quiet restaurants. Lust, Cautionwas given the rare and controversial NC 17 rating by the Motion Picture Association of America’s review board, which means that no one under 17 can be admitted in a theatre (as opposed to the more common R rating, where children under 17 can see the film, but only if they are accompanied by an adult).
In the past 16 years, Lee has made a remarkable career with films that challenge our notion of human relationships, sexual and other. He made it big with The Wedding Banquet – his charming study of a gay Chinese man’s marriage of convenience with an undocumented woman, that results in disastrous and yet warm consequences. He has since then directed a vast array of films – from the subdued and quiet, classic British romantic storySense and Sensibility, where what is not said is more important than what is spoken; The Ice Storm – a tragic examination of the breaking apart of America’s moral fibre, during President Nixon’s era, with wife swapping parties in white suburban Connecticut; and Brokeback Mountain, a deeply romantic and heartbreaking love story of two closeted gay cowboys. He has dealt with a comic book hero in the not-so-successful Hulk and with Chinese martial art action drama in the very elegant and high energy driven Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It is a very impressive resume for a filmmaker with tremendous creative resources.
With Lust, Caution he goes further – looking at sexual politics and power play, with a healthy dose of suspense, intrigue and betrayal. The film is based on a short story by the Chinese writer Eileen Chang whose writing career (from the 1930s until the time of her death in 1995) included several short stories, novels and film scripts. Her works – considered the best among the Chinese literature of that period, often dealt with the tensions between men and women in love. In the film’s press kit, Lee is quoted as saying that no story of Chang ‘is as beautiful, or as cruel as Lust, Caution.’
It is the early 1940s. The brutal expansionist Japanese army occupies China. Wong is part of a radical resistance student group that first met up in Hong Kong and now have reconnected in Shanghai with the hope of eliminating Yee, a top Japanese collaborator. Theatre acting gives Wong tremendous thrill and soon she is ready to play a more important role where the script will have to be revised and improvised.
Wong pretends to be married to a businessman and enters the Yee household by befriending Mrs. Yee (a wonderful Joan Chen). From there this young woman flirts her way into Yee’s heart. But their first violent sexual encounter is director Lee’s way of informing us that all is not comfortable in this secret rendezvous. It is also his reminder to the audience that because of the deceptive nature of their relationship, something is going to crack up.
As the two protagonists meet up again and again for sex, the violent nature of the act leads to more passionate love making. But we cannot let our guards down. The two
Otilia’s journey turns out to be more harrowing than the pregnant woman’s since she has to compensate for Gabita’s unreliability and manipulative passivity. Starting with booking the hotel where the operation will be performed unbeknownst to the compulsively bureaucratic hotel staff, she also has to negotiate with the abortionist, pay him and deal with the aftermath. But the most harrowing test of her solidarity comes as soon as she brings the abortionist to the hotel room.
characters may start to show warmth towards each other, but the director is keeping us on the edge. The eventual act of betrayal by one of the protagonists is a reminder that the weak in a relationship can sometimes be a lot stronger than one can imagine. And they can use the strength to self destruct.
Lust, Caution is a beautiful film, one that will haunt you, with its slow romantic soundtrack, and its details – whether in a woman cautiously applying a touch of perfume behind her ears or the larger canvas of a busy Shanghai destroyed by the occupying forces. Ang Lee is a master and we are blessed to be living in a time when he can enrich our senses with all his sensibilities.
Aseem Chhabra is a freelance entertainment writer based in New York. He writes a weekly column for Mumbai Mirror. He has been published in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Time Out, New York, India Abroad and Rediff.com. Aseem is on the board of the South Asian Journalist Association. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.