If I only went by my first impressions, I’d have to say Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution was a bit of a dud. It’s been a while since I’ve wanted to like a movie so much and come away from it liking it so little. Art School Confidential was probably the last movie to disappoint me as much. Unlike the Zwigoff film however, I found myself warming up to Lust, Caution the more I thought about it afterwards. This is a long, languid and elusive film that doesn’t give up its secrets immediately. I left the theater exhausted and more than a little frustrated, wondering how Lee had managed to turn a short story into a 2 hour and 40 minute marathon and not sure if it was worth the effort. The morning after however, as I’ve had time to absorb what I’ve seen, my feelings are more positive. It’s still the same long, slow and vague movie, but it’s also beautiful and sad and a lot more rewarding than I originally thought.
The story takes place during World War II in Japanese occupied China. Wei Tang plays a young woman who goes from student to actor to activist to spy. Chinese superstar Tony Leung plays the other main character, a Chinese collaborator with the Japanese who has been targeted for assassination by the resistance movement. The bulk of the film involves the efforts of Wei to infiltrate the life (and bed) of Leung and the aftermath of her actions. There are more characters and some additional bits of business, but that’s essentially it for nearly 160 beautiful yet grueling minutes.
Inevitably, comparisons will be drawn between Lust, Caution and Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, a film that is also set during WWII and also features a heroine who uses sex as a weapon to wage war. The Verhoeven film is more entertaining on its surface and more instantly gratifying however, playing at times like an action film. Underneath I think it also contains a more overtly political or social message than Lust, Caution which is more interested in the personal and largely interior struggles of two people.
It is partly this nature, the essentially internal, that helps make Lust, Caution such a challenge. Much of what happens on the screen is subtext. Lee doesn’t hit you over the head with the internal lives of his characters. Much happens with expressions and exchanged glances and it’s left to the viewers to tease out what people are thinking. That’s preferable to say, Paul Haggis, a filmmaker whose character’s inner lives are seemingly dictated by the needs of his screenplay, but it also demands a lot of work from the viewer. It doesn’t help that the film is subtitled for those who don’t speak Mandarin. I don’t mind subtitles, but I felt like I was missing out on much of the film’s subtlety just keeping up with the dialogue.
Eventually (after the fact), I found my way inside of these characters and that’s when things started to get more interesting. It took me a while, but I came to see the two leads as tragic figures in terms of the sacrifices they make for their cause. Wei gives not only her body, but essentially her whole life to the seduction of this man over the course of years. She spends most of her life acting a role. She’s never allowed to show her true nature. Once, early in the film, she’s shown sitting in a movie theater watching Ingrid Bergman in Intermezzo and she’s crying. You realize she’s crying more for herself than the characters on the screen and it’s the last time until perhaps the end of the movie that we see her this openly emotional. Tellingly, it happens in the dark where no one can see her.
Leung is the bad guy of the story, but it’s not as simple and clear cut as good vs. evil. He has made sacrifices of his own. Working for the collaborationists, he lives in constant fear of reprisal. He is able to trust no one and can’t let anyone close to him. He can’t speak of these things, but the isolation is worn into his face. He’s a lonely man, but what would amount to a simple indiscretion for most men is for him fraught with peril. He’s reticent, but sad and always watchful.
Ultimately, both of these characters are unable to reveal their true selves, but for different reasons. She’s acting a part, and for him self revelation would be a weakness. These veils the characters wear is what makes the movie fascinating, but is also what makes it difficult to warm up to. I spent all of my energy trying to get inside these characters and to understand what they were thinking and feeling. I kept thinking I knew who they were and where they were going but I was continually surprised. When Wei and Leung finally have sex, both characters take a turn that I didn’t expect. I don’t want to say too much about it because I think it’s a defining moment and one of the keys to appreciating the film. Again though, because Lee is so subtle, the scene can be taken in multiple ways. Was Leung just testing Wei, was he acting out his true desires, or both? Wei’s reaction later as she’s laying alone on the bed exhausted from sex adds a final mysterious twist to what just happened. Did she like it or does she simply feel satisfied she’s finally got Leung on the hook? Is it pleasure or business or a little of each? After it’s over you wonder if their vigorous sex showed us something honest for once or if it was just another layer of performance.
In the end, Lust, Caution is not the kind of movie that leaves you feeling elevated and entertained. You won’t leave the theater with a smile on your face. It’s a movie that needs to be digested and isn’t really suitable for a simple evening’s amusement. The pleasures aren’t immediate. They come later when you ponder it and try to piece together what you’ve seen and talk about it with your friends. It’s not a movie for all tastes. It’s not even the kind of movie I’d want to see every trip to the theater, but it’s worth seeing if you’ve got the patience. I recommend it.
Lust, Caution (Se, jei). Hong Kong/USA/China 2007. Directed by Ang Lee. Written by James Schamus and Wang Hui-Ling from the short story by Eileen Chang. Cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto. Music score composed by Alexandre Desplat. Production design by Pan Lai. Starring Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Wei Tang, Joan Chen and Lee-Hom Wang. In Mandarin with subtitles. 2 hours 37 minutes. Rated NC-17 for some explicit sexuality. 3.5 stars (out of 5)