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Lust, Caution

November 17, 2009

Lust. Caution.

Lust, Caution.


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

17 Comments leave one →
  1. November 18, 2009 6:13 AM

    Ang Lee is very special for me, too. I watched his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon when I was ten, and I still remember significant tracts of it.
    There’s one part where someone who doesn’t know about the secret life of the heroine draws her name, and says, “Your name looks like a sword.”
    It’s one of those things that end up taking a special place in your heart.

    Grace: The last scene in “Brokeback Mountain” does the same for me.

  2. November 19, 2009 4:20 AM

    I thought In the Mood for Love too sacchrine. Do you understand Chinese or do you use subtitles? I’m very curious about China. Are thee any world class directors or movies like we Ray for one in India?

    Grace: Why are you linking S.M. Rana but not signing as him?

    • November 20, 2009 1:03 AM

      Sorry for the confusion due to my careless and over-hasty pressing of the go key.

  3. November 19, 2009 9:29 AM

    It’s the misfire of the autofill function.

    Grace: Got it. Oh the mystries of the internet…

  4. November 21, 2009 6:06 PM

    Looks like a great movie, and bravo to Ang Lee for not being afraid of an NC-17 rating. Then again, if movies are drawn from life, are drawn from our experiences, how can we put a rating on any of it?

    I think it’s playing here in Seattle somewhere, so I’ll definitely try to catch it before it leaves the theater. I’ve been lucky enough to see several of Ang Lee’s movies on the big screen, and this one looks like another one that deserves the big screen treatment.

    Grace: It’s still playing in theater? Definitely worth seeing. Note: don’t bring your mother.

  5. November 22, 2009 12:21 AM

    As she’s in Connecticut, and I’m in Washington, not a problem. ;-) Besides, I learned that lesson when my parents and I watched Y Tu Mama Tambien together, which I would also not recommend.

    I’m trying to remember where I saw the poster for Lust Caution. It might have been left over from when Ang Lee brought the film to the Seattle International Film Festival in 2007, or maybe it was an advertisement for the DVD. But you are right, it is no longer in theaters. :-( I missed it while I was in Japan, which is ironic, because that’s where I saw Brokeback Mountain in a second-run movie theater. Still, I will seek it out.

  6. November 23, 2009 10:35 AM

    I love the Ang Lee quote at the end. I’m lucky enough to have a theater that regularly plays Chinese movies nearby in Paris, and over the years I’ve been able to see quite a few hidden gems, including The World or the recent Memory of Love (which, imdb informs me, hasn’t actually been released outside of France at all–what a shame). The difference in pacing between Chinese movies (and perhaps, to a larger extent, Eastern Asian movies in general) and Western ones is something that I’ve always found fascinating. When asked if I would recommend a Chinese movie I’ve just seen, I always find myself adding, “it’s very slow-paced, though, so you might not enjoy it if you’re easily bored.”

    As for Lust, Caution, one of the scenes I found the most striking is the MaJong game that opens the movie. Watch the precise movements, listen carefully to what these four women are saying. They’re not making small talk. They’re engaging in a very political discussion, jockeying for position for themselves and their husbands, using every resource at their disposition in occupied China. All that in an innocuous game of MaJong. Then, of course, there’s the much deadlier game that Wong is playing…

    Such a great movie… Thanks for bringing it back, Grace.

    Grace: How fantastic that you can actually see Chinese movies in theatre…I don’t even have that luxury here in Toronto. And yes, the MaJong game scene is crucial. Asian cinema runs at a slower pace because, well, people love to long for things they desire. We are raised in a culture that promotes patience and hard work. One is taught that if you didn’t work hard for something…somehow you don’t deserve it. There is an innate suspicion to sudden change. Boisterousness is frowned upon, especially in women. There is no class in demanding what you want outright. Therefore, the importance lies in the little details. Nothing is too subtle if you pay attention. To put it bluntly, we are the queen of passive agressiveness, and it makes for such great cinema, in my opinion. :)

    • November 23, 2009 11:03 AM

      Asian cinema? Bad generalisation. Indian cinema is rarely, if ever, slow.
      Yeah, if you talk about Chinese/Japanese/other related country cinema, you’re probably right.

      Grace: I meant East Asian and to a larger extent, SouthEast Asian cinema. Of course Bollywood stands apart on its own.

      • November 24, 2009 12:29 AM

        It’s why I love Ozu. He is in no rush to hurry the story along in a movie like Tokyo Story, and yet, it allows the viewer to contemplate all the more all of the subtleties going on in that film. I still remember the first time I saw that movie. I didn’t feel as if I was watching a movie; I felt as if I was watching a family, as all of the actions unfolded naturally.

        Speaking of East Asian cinema, I will be seeing the shortened international version of John Woo’s Red Cliff on Sunday. Has anyone else seen this movie, or the original 4 1/2 hour Chinese version?

        Grace: No….let me know how it is.

  7. November 24, 2009 9:03 AM

    John Woo as in the guy who makes horrible action movies like Paycheck and Face/Off? Why would you want to watch him?

    • November 24, 2009 7:30 PM

      More like the John Woo who made the cult classics Hard Boiled and The Killer, which is what made his reputation in China and led to his time in Hollywood. Like too many talented directors, however, his Hollywood years started off well and ended badly, and none of his Hollywood films approached his former greatness.

      Returning to his home country, he decided to make a movie based on Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or at least part of it. The result is the most expensive movie ever made in China, and the highest-grossing movie ever shown in China (it beat Titanic).

      And sorry for plugging my blog in your blog, Grace (yeah, I know how that sounds, and I apologize), but I will be reviewing that movie next week (at least the 2 1/2 hour international version–the Chinese version is almost double the length), so if you wish to see which John Woo directs that movie, Ronak–the director of Hard Boiled or the director of Paycheck–check out my blog next week. Provided, of course, that the head organizer for this outing doesn’t contract the flu in the meantime.

  8. March 14, 2010 1:51 AM

    I must thank you, Grace, for you recommendation. I was able to borrow a copy of Lust, Caution at my public library (and therefore see it alone on my computer), but wished I had seen it in theaters, as I’m sure it looked even more beautiful up on the big screen.

    I hope to see it again next week (we can borrow movies in Seattle for up to two weeks, not including renewals, which is nice), at which time I will give you a reaction to your reaction through my reaction to the film (I’m going to focus more on Tony Leung’s performance the second time around, as his performance is the more difficult of the two main performances to crack, except when the emotion starts breaking through). And you’re right, Wei Tang (or Tang Wei, if you Americanize it–Southeast Asian countries don’t flip the names of Westerners in their countries, so should we flip theirs in English? I’m never sure about that. To me, Soseki Natsumi sounds better than Natsumi Soseki–but I digress) is a find. She should have a long career ahead of her. Never acted in a film before? That’s even more incredible than Carey Mulligan’s performance in An Education. At least she had been in other films before she starred in that one.

    All I’ll say here is that I enjoyed the movie (I love historical dramas, romances, and, of course, anything having to do with Southeast Asia, so it didn’t have to try that hard), and I did not find the movie slow at all. In fact, I was surprised, when it ended, that two hours and forty minutes had gone by–always the sign of a really good film.

  9. March 22, 2010 2:08 AM

    Okay, so I’ve seen Lust, Caution for a second time, read your review again…and realized that I still missed stuff (such as the significance of that opening shot of a dog and a man). But, I was right about Tony Leung’s performance. You have to really pay attention to see how good of a performance it is.

    The first time, I didn’t notice the circumstances that make him act the way he does in each scene. When Mak Tai Tai first meets Mr. Yee and has a conversation with him in the restaurant, Yee smiles a bit and seems relaxed, though still cautious. Three years later, he is more stressed, hardly smiles, and even more cautious, but seeks a release from his world, just as Wong Chia Chi, as Mak Tai Tai, is seeking a release from her world. This plays out in the bedroom (your description of “the tangle of limbs merely being the soldiers of war” is apt). What’s great is that, like the fight scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the lovemaking scenes in Lust, Caution further the story and the characters; they are never just set pieces.

    Also, while it’s great that you highlight Tony Leung and Tang Wei’s acting ability, I think Wang Leehom should also be commended for his portrayal of Kuang Yu Min.

    Two questions: Did you see this movie with or without English subtitles? And, have you read the book by Eileen Chang, on which the movie is based? If you have, did you read it in English or Chinese? (I know, that’s three questions, but the last one is dependent upon the answer to the second one, so you really have two definite questions and a third, possible question. But I doth protest too much). The reason I ask is because I think it’s wonderful when people can see movies or read books in their original languages, as something is always lost in translation.

    At this point, I’m still deciding which I like better, the movie (which I enjoyed even more the second time I saw it), or your review. Perhaps I should say that both are great, and leave it at that. Also, I did get the complete version of Red Cliff a while back on DVD (also starring Tony Leung–that guy is everywhere!), but I have yet to put up a review on my blog. I did promise a review of the full movie (actually, two movies) in my review for the severely cut version, so it will be up there, sooner or later. Have some Tarantino to watch, first.

    Also, I apologize for a comment that is longer than some of your posts. Feel free to hijack my blog when I write my review of Red Cliff and Red Cliff II.

    Grace: I saw it without subtitles – when I speak the language, I find them distracting. Have not read the book. If I do it will be in Chinese for obvious reasons.

    • March 22, 2010 5:56 PM

      I thought so, since I remember you mentioning in your review of The Hurt Locker that you read Chinese novels in Chinese. Especially in this film, where there’s so much to pay attention to, I envy the fact that you didn’t have to deal with subtitles. Maybe one day, I can watch Ozu’s films without subtitles, and read Soseki Natsumi in Japanese.

      At some point, I hope to pick up the book at the library (in English, for obvious reasons ;-)). I’ll try and remember to put a review of it on my blog (and maybe compare/contrast it with the movie, if I do), especially since Ronak is getting on my case about reviewing books (actually, he just asked if I ever review books on my blog, but it sounds more exciting put the other way). ;-)

      In the meantime, I patiently wait for your review of Tokyo Story…..:-)

  10. November 19, 2011 3:19 AM

    Excellent review of another epic Ang Lee film. Great insight into Lust, Caution. My short thoughts on the film here


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