Monday night, I watched the movie Lust, Caution. I've been wanting to talk with somebody about it, but since I don't know anyone else whose seen it, I figured I'd do the next best thing and blog about it.
Lust, Caution (色，戒) is the latest film by Ang Lee, the director who brought us Brokeback Mountain (which I still haven't seen -- I know, I know!); Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; and less recently The Wedding Banquet and Eat, Drink, Man, Woman which are two of my favorite movies. Ooh, and let's not forget about The Ice Storm that was good too.
Lust, Caution actually won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival, but the reviews by American critics have been surprisingly mixed. I think some of them couldn't get past the 158-minute running time and claimed that the movie was too slow (which -- I love Wong Kar Wai -- but this movie was a rollercoaster ride compared to one of his flicks). Some dismissed the movie as "cold" which I don't understand at all, and some couldn't get over the graphic sex scenes which earned the film an oh-so-box-office-friendly NC-17 Rating.
Speaking of sex scenes, it seems like everyone feels obligated to defend them as necessary to the story as opposed to gratuitous. For the most part, I don't understand this. If we're all adults, why the need to be coy? I guess self-conscious sexual content for the sole purpose of titillating viewers can really cheapen a film, but anyone who watches this film will agree that this is certainly not the case here.
This tale of espionage and adultery stars Tony Leung (a.k.a. Wong Kar Wai's favorite leading man, cf. Happy Together, In the Mood For Love, 2046) and film newcomer Tang Wei. Also, Joan Chen (who I know as Josie Packard from Twin Peaks) plays Leung's wife. Despite its long running time, the film's suspense and lavish visuals really held my attention. The period costumes were gorgeous, and Ang Lee actually recreated a whole street out of 1940s Shanghai. Another thing that stands out is the palpable chemistry between the two leading characters.
Throughout the film, a lot of emotional content is conveyed through nonverbal communication such as stolen glances. Once I read a book about director Krzysztof Kieslowski which praised the way he was able to communicate characters' emotions through shots lingering on actors' faces or eyes. It noted how many other directors (even those as great as Woody Allen) resort to having character's straight up tell the audience how they're feeling in voiceover or soliloquy. Ang Lee doesn't cop out like that in Lust, Caution.
The action starts in 1938 Hong Kong where our heroine is a wartime refugee (unlike Shanghai, HK didn't fall to the Japanese until 1941). At university there, a handsome student convinces her to join his theatre troupe which is putting on a patriotic melodrama in order to raise money for the war effort. Everyone is impressed by her performance. Then, when the student finds out that a childhood friend is working for Yee (Tony Leung), an important collaborator with the Japanese, he cooks up an elaborate plot to assassinate the traitor. The girl and another student actor pose as a wealthy young couple (with two others playing their servants), and he arranges for them to meet Mr. and Mrs. Yee. Mrs. Yee takes a shining to our heroine, whom she knows as Mrs. Mak, inviting her to join her mahjong games and shopping excursion (according to Mrs. Yee, these are the only diversions available to married women during the war).
As a part of Mrs. Yee's circle of friends, Mrs. Mak rarely sees the shadowy Mr. Yee, until one day they bump into each other outside of his home during an afternoon shower. Their mutual attraction is clear from the start, and, after the two secretly spend a day in town together, the conspirators decide that Mrs. Mak should become Yee's mistress so as to better lure him into their trap. Unfortunately, before they can put their plan into action, the Yees are abruptly called back to Shanghai.
When we rejoin her four years later, our heroine is living in poverty in Shanghai. She is approached by the handsome student, now a member of the resistance, who asks her to resume the role of Mrs. Mak in order to get access to Yee. Yee has since been made the head of intelligence for the collaborationist government the Japanese established in Nanjing (i.e. the Wang Jingwei government) which basically means he interrogates and tortures agents of the resistance.
This time around, when Yee and Mrs. Mak meet again, their relationship quickly becomes physical. The sex scenes are quite graphic (some people are convinced the actors are actually having intercourse -- and I... kind of agree with them). Their first encounter, which I would describe as a near rape, especially sticks with me. You learn a lot about the two characters from these scenes as these are the only moments where they can let themselves go. There's also more than a little desperation in the way they make love: as if they both know that they're doomed (she's a spy and he's a traitor to his people, collaborating with the hated Japanese). But there's also a lot of ambiguity: as you watch them having sex you can't help but wonder what they're thinking. Does he suspect that she's a spy? Is she falling in love with him or is she picturing the moment when her co-conspirators will kill him? And how much does Mrs. Yee know? -- surely more than she lets on. The movie respects the audience enough that it allows you to draw your own conclusions. It invites you to think about the things that aren't said and this is probably why it lingers with you long after you leave the movie house.
As I said, Ang Lee did an amazing job of recreating the historical era. One of the details that impressed me was how cosmopolitan Shanghai was at this time. You see a lot of Westerners on the streets. This inspired me to do a little research, and it turns out that there was a large community of Russian émigrés living in Shanghai between 1917 and 1949. These people had fled their homeland after the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917 travelling through Russia's far eastern provinces to arrive in China. There was also a Shanghai ghetto: first came the Russian Jews, then the so-called Baghdadi Jews who migrated from the Middle East via British India. These groups were then joined by Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany who came to Japanese-occupied Shanghai because it was one of the few places in the world which did not require immigrants to produce a passport. At some point in the forties the Germans asked their allies to hand over these Jews for extermination. The wikipedia article on the Shanghai ghetto includes a great quote about the meeting between the Japanese military governor and leaders of the Jewish community in which the governor asked them why the Germans hated them so much:
Without hesitation and knowing the fate of his community hung on his answer,Lust, Caution stills (c) Focus Features, quotation taken from The Rabbi of 84th Street: The Extraordinary Life of Haskel Besser by Warren Kozak (HarperCollins, 2004)
Reb Kalish told the translator (in Yiddish): "Zugim weil mir senen orientalim — Tell him the Germans hate us because we are Oriental." The governor, whose face had been stern throughout the confrontation, broke into a slight smile. In spite of the military alliance, he did not accede to the German demand and the Shanghai Jews were never handed over.