The English name of Ang Lee’s latest film consists of two words. Taken separately, they stand alone as two individual concepts: Lust, a primal, human urge; and Caution, an evolved, societal tool. Put them side by side, and you see a comparison: the primal versus the evolved, individual versus society, incongruent.
Poke a little hole in the membrane that seperates the two, and we begin to see a contrast. Lust, the human emotion, surges in the face of caution. Caution stares right back, coolly, unflinching.
Make that membrane even more porous…and the two start to bleed into one another. Can you see it? The red, thick goo of lust languishedly start to expand ever so relentlessly…and the pale, milky fog of caution determinately surrounds the lust, permeating through space, suspending, until the red is only visible as a faint, blushing pink through the suffocating, white curtain.
Ever since I saw Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” (2007), I have not been able to stop thinking about these two words. They were not chosen at random, I know. Lee is a master at quietly evoking powerful emotions. To me, his directorial style is a gentle cross between Wong Kar-Wai and Clint Eastwood, combining Wong’s taste for moody, lush cinematography with Eastwood’s strong, silent characterizations. All three innately understand the power of the unsaid. All three evocate instead of telling. And that is why they move me like no other. Lee, in particular, is a provocative blend of eastern sentimentalities and western sensibilities. Perhaps that is due to his upbringing, born in TaiWan and educated in both his native land and America, he strucks me as a director with a precise feel for what he wants. The title of his first film, “Sense and Sensibility,” seems oddly appropriate.
“Lust, Caution” opens in ShangHai, China in 1942. The first shot is that of the face of a german shepherd, and pans up to the face of a man. Observe this quiet link between man and beast. It is an important theme that is revertebrated throughout the rest of the film.
We float up the stairs of a house, following the trail of indistinctable, womanly chatter, through a darkened corridor, and into a richly decorated room where a MaJong table sit in its midst, surrounded by four Chinese women at its sides. The air is sweet with scent of extravagance. Expertly-cut cheongsams glide over their well-preserved figures, the lush fabrics intimately outlining the curves of its adorner, its silky weight titallatingly speak of the pearly flesh that lies beneath. The upper class women giggle and laugh while their immaculately manicured hands float across the tabletop like marble scrulptures that come to life, precisely picking up, sorting, stacking, and throwing down MaJong pieces with a well-oiled ease, the gold and gems of rings and bracelets cut through the air in a blur, occassionally catch the light and reflect off a glint that is too bright to the eye. It’s 1940s in Japanese-occupied ShangHai, and everything seems possible and uncertain. Outside, the alleyways are dark.
This is described as an espionage thriller. It is so much more than that. Lee says that it’s filmed in the tradition of film noir. I believe that. It is also a love story, one of distrust, patrioism, self-preservation, of lust, and of caution.
The break-out star here is Wei Tang. This is her first film role, but you wouldn’t be able to tell. The story starts four years before that fateful MaJong game, in Hong Kong. The Japanese is closing in, and patrioism boils amongst young blood. Wong Chia Chi (Wei Tang), a first year university student, falls in with a group of eager fellow theatre students, and they come up with a plot to assassinate Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), a high level Chinese official working for the Japanese, a traitor to the country they love. The gang has no experience in anything of this sort, but their naivete is all the courage they need. The plan evolves in unexpected fashion when Mr. Yee and Mrs. Mak, Wong’s cover, meet. He takes an immediate interest in her. She is a natural actor and responds in kind, believing this is the “in” they needed. Once the spark is lit, there is no turning back. Unbeknownst to them, the fate of these six young people were forever sealed in the first look that passed between Mr. Yee and Mrs. Mak.
The plan is interrupted prematurely when Mr. Yee moves to ShangHai. Four years later, everyone find themselves in the same city again, and as fate would have it, in the same predictment. The naivete has long been stripped away by this point. The Japanese ruled the city. Death and poverty litter the streets of ShangHai, while the rich and powerful live in bored extravagance. That’s always the way it is. That was the way it was.
What follows, is the living-out of the fate of Mr. Yee and Mrs. Mak. They are from different worlds: a high official that lives in layers of secrets and security and a poor young woman with nothing to live for. But he is a man that many people wants to kill, and she is a woman that is hired precisely by those people to kill him. He is a traitor to his country. She is a patriot, or at least, she thinks she is. For all those reasons above, the two people most unlikely to meet, meet once again, and they rekindle the flame that was snuffed out four years ago.
What ensues you can imagine. The sex is explicit, and the film has gotten more attention for its NC-17 rating than its story. This is wrong. The sex is not unnecessary. It is the ultimate portrayal of intimacy between Yee and Mak…not only physical, but emotional. These are two of the most fear-filled, confused, and desperate individuals that existed. Yee can have anything he wants, but he is so scared of death, so consumed with the preservation of his mortality, that he can hardly find pleasure in all that is so readily available to him. His wife, his wealth, his job, his secrets, he goes through them with an air of stoic endurance. He endures them because he must in order to live, and he has accepted that…until he meets her.
Mrs. Mak is a cover, but for Wong, it is an escape from her life in reality. We hear little about her father, but we sense that she has been abandoned. She floats through life with a ghostly hopelessness. She insists on going to school just to feel some kind of purpose, even though all that is taught is Japanese, language of the oppressors that have sucked out all the hope in her life. She keeps on going to movies and cries in the dark, but even films are interrupted by war announcements. Escape is so hard to come by in those times…so when an opportunity presented itself, she seized it, and she met him.
Their relationship quickly ended up in bed, and that is where it stayed, most of the time. I suspect that is the only place where they both feel safe…stripped of clothes, naked, all that is visible is their lust for each other. Within the lust caution is exerted. They look at each other intently while their bodies engage, trying to find any trace of deceit and secrecy. They physically exhaust each other, fighting for climax, for weakness. This is a battle of the will, and the tangle of limbs are merely soldiers of war.
“I hate you.” She says. “I believe you.” He grabs her. “I haven’t believed anyone in a long time…but I believe you.” He shakes her with force. “Say it again.”
The problem with humans is that we are emotional creatures. Emotions are like floods…you open a small break in the barrier, and before you know it it all comes crashing down.
“You shouldn’t be so beautiful.” He wraps his arm around her in an iron vice, as if trying to squeeze out his desire of her, furious with his loss of focus while she waited outside.
“He knows better than anyone the extent of pretending.” She gasped, when asked by superiors to stay in the role longer. “He not only invades my body…but my heart. Only if I faithfully stay in this role can I burrow into his heart.” She breathes harder. “He makes me bleed and cry every time, only then will he be satisfied, only then will he feel alive in the dark. Only he knows that it is real.”
This is a losing game from the start. They both tried to conquer each other while deceiving each other. Lust was their weapon of choice, and caution was their armour. But even the most intimate act cannot strip away all that armour. Or maybe it did, eventually. They started to injure each other, inside. The seed of lust grew and grew, and started to chip away at the armour of caution from the inside out, and they were both helpless against it. The ending was inevitable. It could not have ended any other way. Watch the last shot of her, observe the flashback to those innocent days, and weight the consequence of that one, simple choice she didn’t even know she made.
Tony Leung has been my favorite actor for a long time, ever since I saw him in “In the Mood for Love.” I can’t explain why he is except, well, that he is my kind of person. There are many, many great actors that I admire: Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Benecio Del Toro, the list goes on. But no one does melancholy like Tony Leung. No one does a longing look like Tony Leung. And no one…and I mean no one, can make me feel myself breaking away into a million pieces, by simply walking away, into the shadows.
The film opened with a shot of a beast and a man. It closed with a view of just the man, Him. Observe him sitting in the darkness that he is so afraid of, then emerging towards the light, and walks into it. But even then he was never completely in the dark. He kept the light on himself, partially, as if afraid of fading into oblivion completely. And when he stands up and leaves the bed that he once shared with possibly the most real love of his life, his shadow lingers until the very last frame. He never really left the dark either. The beast in him is alone now, again, and how long will it be before it rips him to shreds?
Lust, Caution. Translated literally into Chinese, it becomes “色,戒” (Se, Jie), the official Chinese title of the film. Translating each character literally in the other direction, you get “Color, Ban.” The ban of color results in a void, filled only with shades of black and white. It is a simple state, non-emotional, ordered, but it is not real. We live our lives in color and chaos. Humanity is color. The emotions that mark our identity are colored, and are evoked through color. How ironic is it, that the caution against lust, one of the most powerful and colorful human emotions of all, is also synonymous with its complete removal. It is not a caution, then, but a complete wipe out of one’s humanity.
The line between lust and caution is a foggy one. Tread carefully… as once blurred, one may wipe the other out entirely.
“Even the favorite reviews, the audience response is the movie is too slow, deliberately slow. But for the Chinese audience, the biggest complaint is it happens too quick. I think the historical background that build into our genes is different. American people has never been occupied. The deep sadness and sentimentality, the cultural background that relates to melodrama that we relate to and grow up with, the propaganda, I didn’t imagine the difference is so big. It’s a very interesting cultural phenomenon.” – Ang Lee