I really don’t know what Ang Lee (Lee Ang in Asian word order) meant when he wrote that “no other writer has used the Chinese language as cruelly” as Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing in pinyin, 1920-1995) did. The controversial film he made of Chang’s story “Se, jie” that has been translated into English as “Lust, Caution” portrays some rather graphic and pretty rough sex between the 45-year-old Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), the head of the intelligence service of the Shanghai Japanese puppet government of Wang Jingwei, and Wong Chiachih (Wei Tang in a sensational screen debut), a college-student actress whose role is to lure him into a trap so that he can be eliminated by Chinese nationalist patriots.
He is using her as a concubine — though Chiachih is the guest or Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen), an inveterate mahjong player — and concubines are entitled to flashy rings (and other jewelry). She aims to inflame his lust so that he can be killed, though she lacks strong political or patriotic convictions. She also has no experience of sexual love or passion-management.
Because her role is that of a married woman (the wife of a Hong Kong businessman, a category very plausibly apolitical) she is deflowered in a totally unromantic and instrumental way (by a fellow actor turned patriot or terrorist, a distinction depending on the side). Mr. Yee wants her, and she has strong feelings, oscillating between love and hate, for him. He uses her very roughly, awakening strong masochism in her.
The film adds an unrequited and mutual love between Chiachih and Kuan Yumin (pop star Lee-Hom Wang), who was her director in a patriotic melodrama before the Japanese conquered Hong Kong and is also the director of the amateur assassins.
In Chang’s story, the group is reassembled at the behest of Mr. Wu (Tou Chunghua, who starred in Hou Hsiaohsien “The Boys from Fengkuei”), a Kuomintang (Nationalist Chinese) agent in Shanghai who learns that Chiachih has befriended Mrs. Yee and might be able to get the very cautious Mr. Yee into a place where he can be killed. In the film adaptation, the group kills a “running dog” of the Japanese (very, very ineptly and therefore gruesomely) and are bailed out of (in 1938, not yet conquered by the Japanese) Hong Kong.
The film adds a scene of Mr. Wu, Kuan Yumin, and Chiachih telling both of them details of what she is doing and feeling with Mr. Wu that neither of the patriotic men wants to hear. For me, this scene is the hinge of the film and makes the reversal(s) ahead more comprehensible than it is in Chang’s very terse story.
I was asked if the graphic sex was necessary. Given that the first word of the title is “lust,” I think so, though what Chiachih says to those who have sent her on her mission of seduction is likely to make viewers as uncomfortable as it does her interlocutors within the scene. And Chang (who worked on the story for nearly three decades) did not specify that the sexual connection was (or verged on being) sadomasochistic.
I think that To and Wang are extremely good, as is Ko Yue-Lin as Liang Junsheng, the member of the group with some sexual experience who must deflower Chiachih for the sake of China (diffidently and passionlessly—condoned by Kuan Yumin, despite his feelings for her). Both the “romantic leads” seem affectless to me. Their sexual congress involves some contorted positions, but their faces remain blank in and out of bed. The movie (not just the sex) is utterly joyless.
Joan Chen does not have much to do, but does that well. Tony Leung (Leung Chui-Wai) has played many heavily conflicted lovers (for Wong Karwai and others). Playing a selfish villain goes against his iconic image. He is able to bring some of his trademark melancholic self-loathing, and some diffidence — at least in scenes with his wife and her circle of mahjong addicts. Mr. Yee knows (by 1942) that the Japanese are going to lose and will be unable to protect him in the long run. He does not know the extent to which his affair with Chiachih is risking his life (and career), but he is intrigued at stimulating strong feelings — even if it expressed hate rather than love.
Leung does not go over to the dark side to the extent that Henry Fonda, for instance, did in “Once Upon a Time in America.” Mr. Yee signs death warrants and shows not the slightest remorse for anything, but at least for me, he never completely breaks out of the web of sympathy accumulated in a quarter of a century of film roles. I mean, he is despicable and has the grace to despise himself to some degree, but he is also the victim and being used. (In terms of Kantian ethics, her use of him is more instrumental than his use of her is.)
I guess that Mr. Yee cannot be a complete monster for the plot to work, so maybe the ethical grayness of assassinating an executioner is exactly what Leung needed to do. There is even one point at which he is moved (by Chiachih’s sining/acting in a geisha house). I don’t understand why he tortured himself to lose weight to look emaciated, since there is no basis for that in Chang’s story. (I don’t know if starving himself was his idea or Lee’s)
I’m not convinced the film deserved a NC-17 rating. The sex is what makes sense of what happens, that is, the story and there is no full-frontal nudity, male or female.
Lee generally takes his (and viewers’!) time. The first half hour in particular drags. Perhaps the pace was intended to illustrate the “caution” in the title?
BTW, there is one sequence in which Yee is in a geisha house in the Japanese quarter to which he has summoned Chiachih that has a Japanese hostess and some very drunk Japanese army officers, one of whom paws Chiachih. Mr. Yee’s office is in a complex under the KMT flag, though the leader of his would-be assassins, Mr. Wu, is also a KMT (Jiang Kai-Shek rather than Wang Jingwei) operative.
The neo-Romantic (sometimes neo-Wagnerian) music by Alexandre Desplat (The Queen, Girl with a Pearl Earring) has made the soundtrack album a big seller. The art direction by Joel Chong and others is outstanding, and done full justice by Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who shot “Brokeback Mountain” for Lee (also Amores Perros, Frida, 21 Grams, Babel, and Alexander).
Lee’s team is very international. I already knew that Tony Leung speaks flawless English and expected that Ko Yue-Lin Wang Leehom did (Ko graduated from Williams, Wang is American-born). In the “making of” featurette, Wei Tang (born in Zhejiang) acquits herself well, if less confidently in English. I’d have liked to hear more from Ang Lee and James Schamus — as in their commentary track for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” What the cast members, Schamus and Prieto say, and what is shown of shooting the film are interesting but relentlessly positive about everyone else (what I call a “We all loved each other SO much” making-of featurette).
©2008, 2018, Stephen O. Murray