Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Reviews Too Late: Lust, Caution

You know that if it's a serious Chinese-language film, it's going to be a tragedy. No one in China ever gets a happy ending. Ever. Not even fictional characters.

That's Rule #1. So I never figured I'd ever mistake this film for, say, It's a Wonderful Life.

Yet when Netflix informed me that Ang Lee had made a movie I'd never even heard of, I hastened to rent it. This turned out to be Se, Jie (2007), released over here as Lust, Caution.

Ang Lee may well be the best filmmaker working in cinema today--- I mean, look at the dude's record--- and Se, Jie turns out to show all of Lee's strengths--- his attention to composition, his carefully-assembled, convincing period details, and his mastery of emotional nuance.

I also saw why the movie didn't exactly break box-office records over here. It's a grim, tragic melodrama where all the good people suffer and die, where the triumph of evil is so commonplace as to be routine, and where the lengthy, highly explicit sex scenes bring no joy to anyone. How many Hollywood rules can you break in a single film?

Much of the story is told in flashback, but in my summary I'm going to dispose of the framing device. The story (as opposed to the first scenes of the film) open in Hong Kong in 1938. World War II has been going on for several years (at least in China), and even relatively privileged college students are caught up in the action. Our freshman heroine, Wong Chia Chi (Wai Teng), joins a theater group that stages patriotic plays in order to raise money for China's defense. She doesn't so much want to be an actress as want to hang around the group's charismatic director, Kuang. (Who is played by Wang Lee-hom, a Chinese-American pop singer so massively famous in Asia that his renown probably eclipses that of the rest of the cast and crew together. He is also responsible for the term "chinked up," which he coined to describe his eclectic musical style.)

To everyone's surprise, college freshman Wong turns out to be a very good actress. Which aids her when the members of the theater group figure out what they want to do on their summer vacation--- a completely goofy scheme to assassinate a traitor, Mr. Yee, who runs a pacifist organization supported by the Japanese.

The group are good enough actors to create a false identity for Wong, that of Mak Tai Tai ("Supreme Wife Mak"), the wife of fictional businessman Mr. Mak, who unfortunately is played by one of the troupe's less gifted actors. ("Tai Tai," literally Supreme Supreme, is an obsolete term for senior wife, from back in the day when Chinese men got more than one.)

Due to the inept acting skills of her "husband," Wong has to carry the deception pretty much on her own, and worms herself into Yee's circle by befriending his own wife, Yee Tai Tai (Joan Chen). Mr. Yee is very attracted to her, and she plans to decoy him away from his guards and to a secluded location where her friends can kill him, when one of her fellow thespians asks the crucial question, "When you're alone with him, will you know what to do?"

Well actually she doesn't. So, in a grim deflowering scene, she sacrifices her virginity to the one member of the troupe who actually possesses a little sexual experience, and who turns out not to be Kuang, the one she actually wants.

Turns out it's for nothing. Yee is called out of town before he can be killed, though the group does succeed in assassinating one of Yee's friends, in a gruesome scene designed to show just how many stab wounds an amateur band of murderers require to actually kill someone. (Reminiscent of the scene in Hitckcock's Torn Curtain, where Paul Newman and Julie Andrews try to kill someone who just . . . won't . . . die . . . one of many Hitchcock references in Lust Caution, by the way, an hommage not so much to Hitchcock's cinematic style as his murky, morally ambiguous, sexually dangerous world-view.)

We now jump four years to 1942. Wong is now living as a poor relation in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, though she's still attending college. Mr. Yee is now a minister in the collaborationist government of Wang Jingwei--- basically he's the Minister of Torture, and carries out many of the interrogations himself. But he's beginning to realize that, since the entry of the U.S. into the war, he's living on borrowed time--- he and the Japanese and his cause (such as it is) are doomed. He's become a nihilistic murdering torturing madman, living with the knowledge that all the blood, all the screaming, all the death will do him no good, and will in fact doom him.

Wandering around Shanghai, who should student Wong run into but her old friend Kuang, the love-object that got her into this mess? It turns out that shortly after the Hong Kong fiasco, the theater troup was recruited by the actual Chinese secret service, and are now operating in Shanghai. Their daffy plan of assassinating Yee has not gone away--- in fact they'd like to revive it, this time with better planning and logistical help.

Wong is still dumb, or desperate, or bored enough to say yes. So "Mak Tai Tai" comes to life again, infiltrates the Yee house as a guest, and is soon involved with Mr. Yee, having desperate, often ugly sex with the man she intends to lure to his death.

The ambiguities of the situation are many. Mr. Yee, a sadist by profession, has a lot of violent, twisted sexual issues to work through before he can become human enough to actually engage in something as normal as adultery. Wong, on the other hand, is a good enough actress to fake anything she needs to, but is she really faking it a hundred percent? Or is part of her responding to what remains of Yee's humanity?

Fortunately for all this, Ang Lee got himself a pair of top-notch actors. Yee is played by Tony Leung (Chiu Wai). Known as "Short Tony" to distinguish him from another male ingenue of the 80s, "Tall Tony" Leung (Ka Fai), Tony Leung Chiu Wai was a star of action and romantic films, and also was one of the "Five Tigers of TVB," a huge Cantopop singing star. He's matured into a distinguished, subtle actor, thanks in part to director Wang Kar-wai, who's cast him in a number of films. Leung is on record as being a big admirer of Robert de Niro, and he's got de Niro's silence down pat, the way de Niro can remain absolutely still and simply play a scene with his eyes. Leung is absolutely wonderful in this.

Even finer is the lead, (Rebecca) Wei Tang. I was astounded to hear this was her first film. She nails absolutely every scene, including those in which she has to distinguish faking it from not faking it, and also from not being sure whether you're faking it or not. (She plays a character who has to pretend that she enjoys being raped. Wei Tang's take on Ms. Wong's acting style was breathtakingly right.)

There are a lot of explicit sex scenes, some violent and hard to watch. They're not erotic, they're clinical psychopathology in action, and call for astounding bravery on the part of the actors. (Unfortunately Wei Tang was punished for them, as her ad campaign for Pond's was banned by the Chinese government.)

There's an absolutely riveting scene where she talks to her handler about having sex with Yee, and that the only way she can endure the abuse and violence is to visualize the resistance breaking down the doors and shooting Yee so that his blood and brains splatter all over her. Her control is so disturbed and frightened by this that he orders her to be silent and follow orders--- keep screwing the guy, in other words, but for god's sake don't tell us what it's like.

Even though the film runs over two hours, and the scale of the film is large--- there's a completely colossal set that re-creates Shanghai in the 40s--- I kept getting the feeling that this is one of Ang Lee's more personal projects. His own family survived the occupation, and he's trying to be faithful to their memory. He's revealing his (or their) own ideas about love, sex, lies, China, and humanity. He's revealing himself no less than his actors.

Perhaps he is suggesting that in order to survive its own history, China has to pretend that it enjoys being raped.

The film was based on a story by iconic writer Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing), which I will now try to locate.

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6 Comments:

Blogger Jvstin Tomorrow said...

They're not erotic, they're clinical psychopathology in action...

Which very nicely defines what I thought.

I like Ang Lee's work (with a few exceptions). This,however, was very difficult for me to watch. I wanted to like it more than I actually did. It's not a movie I'd run out and go own. Once was enough.

3:40 AM  
Blogger S.M. Stirling said...

woah, I've got to see this sometime!

2:10 AM  
Blogger Jvstin Tomorrow said...

You might not want to see it a second time, Steve, but DO see it.

3:29 AM  
Anonymous Ethan said...

Man, you said it about serious Chinese movies. I'm still traumatized from Red Sorghum

1:04 AM  
Anonymous Max Cairnduff said...

Lust, Caution is available in a rather good Penguin Classics edition, I imagine you can get that in the states from Amazon or whoever. It's reviewed over here at http://theasylum.wordpress.com/ and on my blog at http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/, do a check for Eileen Chang in either case and you'll find it (or I can link directly, but then it pops up as a trackback which seems ott for simply pointing out a couple of reviews). It's part of an excellent short story collection, and having read your thoughts on the film it's interesting how much has been changed and how much kept the same.

You have sold me on watching the film, it sounds like it captures the spirit of the story, and Ang Lee when good is very good.

11:18 AM  
Blogger dubjay said...

I haven't seen Red Sorghum, but I've read the book. Yeah, lots of things in there to be depressed about.

You have to wonder how cheerful US fiction would be if we'd lost 50 million people in the previous century due to government ineptitude, and another 50 million in the last-but-one due to a civil war.

I have got an Eileen Chang collection coming from the library, but I don't know if it's the one with this particular story in it. No TOC available on the online library.

4:09 PM  

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