LUST, CAUTION (Se, jie) B+
USA China Taiwan Hong Kong (157 mi) 2007 d: Ang Lee
The mood is stifling, yet like the best Asian films, everything is revealed in subtle glances, with Lee's acute sense for details, in the smallest of all possible movements, which tell all. Lee’s first Chinese language feature since CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000), this is an old-fashioned, sprawling love story gone wrong set in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong in 1938 and Shanghai in 1942, adapted from an Eileen Chang 54-page novella drenched with murky details and political intrigue. Told nearly entirely through flashback, where attention to the look and the customs of the period are favored over detailed historical facts, which are largely assumed in this film, designed to appeal to Asian audiences, as one would think all Chinese are familiar with pre-WWII Japanese atrocities from a foreign invader, while American viewers may need more historical prodding. To its credit, the film foregoes any backdrop and instead immerses the viewer instantly into a realm in Hong Kong that resembles an invisible bubble, a highly protected world within a world revealing a small segment of ultra rich Chinese who are continuing to live as they are accustomed, buying what is unavailable in stores on the black market, but maintaining their Chinese identity while the Japanese declare martial law on the streets. To these women, there is no reference to a war going on, a total block out of what’s happening on the streets where citizens are routinely clubbed and arrested and where there are long lines of Chinese attempting to obtain their miniscule rations in order to survive. Instead the women sit in a room and play mahjong all day while sipping tea, gossiping about each other’s lives, discussing the China they once knew, each impeccably dressed in the latest styles. Occasionally the men briefly enter the room before they are whisked into hidden corridors or into waiting chauffeur-driven cars where they have important business meetings long into the night. The women never discuss the men’s affairs.
In this women’s social circle the mahjong game is hosted by Mrs. Yee, the irrepressible Joan Chen, whose dapperly dressed husband Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), occasionally drops in to pay his respects. Newcomer Tang Wei plays a younger woman Wong Chia-chi, alias Mrs. Mai, pretending to be the wife of a rich merchant, but is actually a member of the Chinese resistance whose goal is to assassinate Mr. Yee, a woman whose irresistible manner and beguiling allure catches Mr. Yee’s eyes. The way this plays out is in a series of table glances, all carefully guarded under his wife’s eyes, yet messages are mysteriously sent and received. A secret affair ensues. Mr. Yee is suspected of collaborating with the enemy (the Japanese), eventually becoming head of a heavily guarded secret police division that rounds up, interrogates and tortures Chinese sympathizers, eventually authorizing their disappearance. But mostly his life is layered in secrecy and his motives throughout remain shrouded in mystery, where until the end little is even known about his actual profession. Wong Chia-chi’s life, on the other hand, is revealed through flashback sequences to be a young college student in Hong Kong who is recruited to perform a melodramatic propagandistic theater piece designed to arouse the sympathies of a Chinese audience (“China will not fail!”), hoping to raise money for their cause, as Hong Kong has not yet fallen to the Japanese. Motivated by deaths and betrayals to his own family, the leader of the theater troupe Kuang Yu Min (Chinese pop star Wang Leehom) decides to join the Chinese underground and train them for secret missions to assassinate enemy collaborators, targeting Mr. Yee. Wong Chia-chi, whose beauty and acting skills are unsurpassed, is lured into this idealistically naïve group and used as bait in the role of a seductress, having never even kissed a man, tempted perhaps by an unexpressed longing to please this director, searching for approval after being abandoned by her own father who has been exiled to England. As soon as she gets surprisingly close, however, Mr. Yee and his wife move to Shanghai. In a stunning moment of disarray, the rag tag group chooses to kill another operative which reveals their clumsiness and utter unprofessionalism. Disheartened, Wong Chia-chi separates from the group, but discovers them again several years later where the plot begins again in Shanghai, this time directed by more experienced resistance fighters.
An interesting twist on this tale is Tang Wei’s brilliance with illusion, how she skillfully plays her part moving so seamlessly between real and make believe. She and Leung are so secretive in every respect with each other, much like Bertolucci’s LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972), except for their sexually explicit scenes in bed, the only moments of “trust” they ever have, a cat and mouse game of dominance, cruelty and surprise, where she is actually manhandled and raped, though with consent, where the psychological allure is as transfixing as the sex, as the two delve into an Ôshima IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES (1976) mindset, where the tables are turned by her apparent inexhaustible ability to outlast him, becoming completely captivated by one another. The attraction feels so real that we sense she’s not really going ahead with her mission, but time and again she surprises us, revealing the full extent of her mental anguish only in a moment where she pleads with the resistance leaders to quickly kill him and put an end to her prolonged agony. Along the way we get a series of hints from movie posters and clips, as she identifies with Joan Fontaine’s fear of Cary Grant’s suspected dark motives in Suspicion (1941) or post WWII heroine Ingrid Bergman kidnapped and drugged by Nazi agents in NOTORIOUS (1946), two films with women at the mercy of bad men. This film draws a much more vivid portrait of Leung than any of the other men in her life, so at all times the audience feels their irresistible desire may alter her original plans.
The excruciating period detail and lurid Douglas Sirkian melodrama resembles Stanley Kwan, whose historical pieces set in Shanghai are legendary, ACTRESS (1991), RED ROSE, WHITE ROSE (1994, based on another Eileen Chang novella), or EVERLASTING REGRET (2005), where the roving eye of the camera becomes an unseen character, luminously shot here by Rodrigo Prieto, featuring exquisite costumes and beautifully designed sets, with exceptional music by Alexandre Desplat. What’s missing in this film is Kwan’s ability to elevate the city’s historical context into his films, where the streets, the back alleys, the food vendors, the bars, or the musical set pieces all come to life within the telling of the story, so the audience literally gets a “feel” for this place in time. Instead Lee excludes much of this built up historical detail in order to enhance the dark complexities of the developing psychological interior world, much like Ôshima’s IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES, which was also set during war time which is all but unseen. So despite the paper thin plot where the minor characters all but disappear, the real story of this film is a character exposé of how pretensions of love go painfully awry during the wretched times of war, featuring two Chinese characters ensnared in a web of deceit under the psychological mindset of a Japanese occupier, reflected in their sexual deviation and their own deeply disturbed moral delusion.
Of interest is how Wong Chia-chi’s background is also shrouded in a gulf of mystery, offering no clues why she was driven to this destiny, as she appears to have little political motivation, or how she can be so much smarter than the rest, more self-assured and sophisticated, offering an unusual sense of calm, so completely at ease mixing with the social customs of the upper class. The audience is completely at a loss to understand how she could be an accomplice to murder. The length of the film accentuates the kind of patience that is needed from an audience in order to understand what kind of patience and commitment Tang Wei’s character must have had, continually molding and developing her make believe persona, becoming thoroughly entrenched in her role as a seductress, but always balancing her sensuality with the mental strength needed to outmaneuver a man of this caliber. She is an indomitable spirit caught up in the horrors of the times, all but abandoned by her family, used by the political powers that thought only of their own gains, and easily discarded as yesterday’s news once the mission is over. The point of this film is that the mission is never really over, as it’s a pointed reminder of how shameless and cowardly men hide behind the bold actions of women in order to accomplish their so-called political and humanitarian aims, taking all the credit for their accomplishments, discarding them completely when they are no longer useful. By creating such an alluring perspective of female torment, much like the fierce dramas of Almodóvar, Lee is attempting to express a sense of gratitude to great heroines of the past.