Ang lee’s follow up to his Academy Award winning Brokeback Mountain is the controversial Lust, Caution. The film delivers an intense portrayal of sex, politics, loyalty and the hardships that are endured by those that are caught in the savagery of war.
Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) is a young girl who is living in china during the Japanese occupation that occurred during WWII. She is seemingly lost and has no real family seeing as how her father left her behind when he fled to England. During her time at University she meets Kuang Yumin (Wang Lee-Hom) a handsome young nationalist who encourages her to perform in a patriotic play as a way to resist the Japanese and display national pride. After the success of the play there is an obvious connection between the two, but Lee-Hom is seemingly preoccupied with China’s political situation and no relationship develops. As time progresses Lee-Hom learns of the location of a local Chinese informant. Lee-Hom convinces his friends (all of whom are no more than students) that it is their duty to their country to do what they can to kill the traitor. The friends agree and precede move into a house in order to get close to the informant. After weeks without progress they decide to abandon their plan, but as they are packing to leave they are confronted by one of the traitors’ associates who inform them that he knows who they are and why they have come.
The confrontation ends violently with Hom stabbing the traitor to death, after witnessing this scene Chia Chi runs away horrified. The film jumps to a couple years later, where the Japanese oppression has increased over the Chinese people and the future of the country is uncertain. Chia Chi has attempted to continue her studies while Lee Hom has continued with his nationalist agenda. The two meet up and Lee Hom informs her that the traitor that they were after is within their reach again. Lee Hom is more confident in their plan being a success because he and the others have joined a much more experienced and organized rebel group. During this second trial Chia Chi becomes involved with Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) who is in fact the traitor that the group is after. After a few encounters between the two, Mr. Yee’s sexual lust for Chia Chi is evident, and the group decides that the best way to get close to Mr. Yee would be through a sexual relationship. Because Chia Chi is a virgin she sleeps with one of the members of the group and proceeds to have sex with him on numerous occasions in order to prepare her for the advances of Mr. Yee. Chia Chi (whose alias is Mrs. Mak) delves deeper into the world of Yee until finally the tension between them breaks into a violent sexual encounter. This begin the sexually charged odyssey between the two, (which includes two more on screen sexual encounters), showing the violent and cruel nature of Yee and also the innocence and sense of entrapment experienced by Chia Chi. Both of the characters evolve through the duration of the film and by the films grim climax we see that they both have had an emotional connection with one another that is more than sexual.
Despite the films very linear narrative and familiar themes it still manages to touch on a number of issues. As is the case with most sexually graphic films, there are those that will be deterred by or focus solely on the sexual scenes in the film. The sex scenes in the films are both beneficial to the film, but at the same time prove to be one of its few flaws. Ang Lee does an excellent job of laying the groundwork for an intense examination of the hardships of a young woman that is torn between two situations, both of which do not seem to have her best interest in mind. The three main sex scenes in the film show the three phases of the characters evolution. The first encounter is violent, and Chia Chi is scared and confused as she is forced into this violent and unfamiliar world. In the second scene she is more impassioned as she has committed herself to the role that she is playing all the while under the impression that she is doing this for the betterment of the nation. The third scene shows that she is hurting and disgusted as she realizes the she has become nothing more than a tool for both Mr. Yee and the nationalist group. The scenes are beautifully shot and superbly performed by the actors so much to the point that many viewers questioned whether or not the scenes were in fact simulated. The downside of the scenes has to do with Ang Lee’s choice of placement and the way they interfere with the pacing of the film. The film pushes three hours and the exposition alone makes up for at least a third of the film. The sex scenes are abruptly thrown onto the screen and follow each other in quick succession. After the scenes, the film returns to the slower pacing that was present in its first act. This unbalanced progression distorts the message of the film and makes us wonder if the scenes were really necessary.
Although told from the Chinese perspective the film does an excellent job of showing the harsh and restrictive nature of both the Japanese and the Chinese governments. We see that Chia Chi state of mind is brought on more by her sense of self worth, and is struggling to find a relationship where she is viewed as more than an object. In a crucial scene towards the films conclusion Chia Chi is kissed by Lee-Hom, she pushes him away saying that he should have kissed her years ago. This scene suggest that Chia Chi joined Lee-Homs’ group more out of her affection for him rather than her actual belief in the groups cause, making everything that Chia Chi endures throughout the duration of the film even more tragic. The film also gives us a good example of the naivety of youth, and how when in times of war the young and inexperienced are forced to come of age in an instant. Chia Chi and her friends are nothing more that college students and theater actors, but over the course of a few months they become a violent militia. The “deflowering” of youth is visually displayed in the scenes where Chia Chi loses her virginity while preparing for her charade as Mrs. Mak.
The Film is beautifully shot and the visuals are accompanied by an equally engrossing musical score. Despite the films grand scale, it never upstages the film’s heroine Tang Wei, who delivers a very impressive and very brave debut performance. Her beauty and elegance carry the film and diverts the audiences’ attention away from the grim and desolate atmosphere of a country torn during wartime.
Lust Caution is a carefully crafted film that presents a very graphic and human view on the dangers of political oppression and the necessity of self-worth and acceptance.
Weak: 1 Star Average: 2 Stars Good: 3 Stars Very Good: 4 Stars Excellent: 5 Stars