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In 2005, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain was released. The most critically acclaimed film of the year, many cinefiles were eagerly anticipating what the director would turn his attentions to next. When news broke that the follow up to Lee’s Oscar nominated movie would see him return to Asia to direct a period spy thriller, Lust, Caution – one with sex scenes so graphic it would earn the film an NC-17 rating – fans of his work were eager to see such an adventurous project.
When Lust, Caution was released in 2007, it received positive reviews, though ones far from the acclaim that greeted his previous works like Sense & Sensibility, The Ice Storm and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Critics praised the look of the movie and its sensual tone but some balked at the 150-minute running time. However, from scanning the reviews of the time, I notice a huge oversight in many. Film scholars seemed, at the time, too preoccupied with the explicit depictions of sexuality – scenes which seem a little tame on reflection given the release of Lars von Trier five-hour Nymphomaniac, Gaspar Noe’s 3-D sex odyssey Love and Steve McQueen’s Shame in the interim – to discuss glaring issues within the movie.
Before I address my problems with Lust, Caution, I’ll talk about the positives. Based on a novella by Eileen Chang, the film does have a solid premise. Set in Japan-occupied China in 1938, young Chinese woman, Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei – Blackhat) joins a group of radical university students who plot to assassinate a ranking agent, Mr. Yee (the legendary Tony Leung Chiu-Wai – Hard Boiled, Hero), of the opposition’s government. Chia Chi goes undercover to ingratiate her way into her target’s social circle. However, in doing so, she forms a sexual relationship with Yee, one which may jeopardise her group’s mission.
Although, the film is called Lust, Caution – the structure of the movie is more Caution, Lust. The first half of the story downplays the sexual elements, focusing on the revolutionary group’s first failed attempt to carry out their mission. Yee, despite clearly lusting for Chia Chi, does not act upon his feelings out of fear for his safety. The government agent, who also has a wife (played by Joan Chen, famous for playing the doorknob occupying Josie Packard in Twin Peaks), previously engaged in two affairs – both of whom were too revealed to be enemy spies. Yee is so cautious that he doesn’t even enjoy going to the cinema, hating “the dark”.
The first 75 minutes of Lust, Caution, taking place in Hong Kong, are its strongest. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (whose worked on a number of gorgeous looking films – Scorsese’s Silence and Wolf of Wall Street, Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, Almodovar’s Broken Embraces) layers the movie with gorgeous gold glowing hues, creating something that feels specifically Asian but also heady and sensual. The script by Lee and frequent collaborator James Schamus takes the time to highlight that Chia Chi’s group are inexperienced amateurs in the field of espionage. One gets a sense of how arduous, time-consuming and most importantly costly (one wealthy member of the group uses up his life savings funding their venture) it would be to enact such a mission.
A key-scene in the film occurs at the mid-way point, forcing the revolutionaries into hiding. Following the news that Yee and his wife will be moving to Shanghai, Chia Chi and co. realise their mission has been for naught. Yet, just as they are preparing to vacate the apartment they had been collectively sharing, a corrupt henchmen of Yee arrives. He informs them he has been aware of their plans and either wants in or a pay-out to keep him silent, threatening the group. The violence that follows – in which the revolutionaries murder their blackmailer – is impressive in how realistic and uncomfortable it is. Lee fills the scene with little details that one typically doesn’t see in cinema, enhancing the realism. When the mastermind of the plan, Kuang (a very good Wang Leehorn, also in Blackhat), attempts to first stab Yee’s underling, he cuts himself on the knife. After he is repeatedly stabbed, the blackmailer writhes around on the floor, attempts to stand and subsequently falls down the stairs – highlighting that a knife isn’t a method of murdering someone quickly. It’s messy, intensely physical and traumatic, the latter evident by members of the group crying as the scene is taking place.
It’s this intelligent depiction of carnage – one which does not glorify violence but depicts how horrible it truly is – that makes the rape scene in the second-half of Lust, Caution all the more bewildering. Following the murder, the film jumps three years to Shanghai, 1942. There, Chia Chi is recruited once again by Kuang to seduce Yee, this time with the backing of the Juntong, a Chinese resistance group. In the time that’s passed Yee has been promoted to head of secret police, capturing and executing enemies and leaving their bodies on the streets for all to see.
It’s here the film makes a fatal misstep, one which has dented better movies than Lust, Caution like Straw Dogs or Once Upon a Time in America. In a brutal scene, Yee pulls Chia Chi by her hair and ear, smashes her against a wall, whips her repeatedly with a belt and proceeds to rape her. The truly disturbing aspect of the scene is the fact that Chia Chi appears to enjoy the rape, smiling as Yee leaves.
The scene doesn’t work for a number reasons. Firstly, the fact that it eroticizes such an evil act is deplorable, sending a troubling message. Yes, there are certain people who are aroused by masochistic or sado-masochistic situations but if a filmmaker is going to make a film about such a person, he or she would have to analyse that fetish in a comprehensive way – something Lee and Schamus just don’t do. A movie like Elle, starring Isabelle Huppert and directed by Paul Verhoeven, features a lead character with masochistic tendencies who is raped and does a fantastic job at delving into its protagonist’s psyche. Her fetishes and destructive behaviour, we come to realise are related to a childhood trauma for which she feels utterly ashamed. Elle highlights that Huppert’s character’s behaviour is not normal or healthy and devotes significant time to her emotional damage. Meanwhile, in Lust, Caution, Yee and Chia Chi’s relationship, following the rape, plays like a typical (as typical as a secret police and enemy spy liaison can be) romance.
There’s also the fact that the rape feels unnecessary. If Lust, Caution cut that scene, replacing it with a depiction of legal sex, it wouldn’t change the film. There would still be the clash between the emotional and logical. In fact, it would be better for the story to excise the rape because following that sexual violence, one just isn’t invested in Yee and Chia Chi’s relationship (rendering the NC-17 rated sex scenes uncomfortable as opposed to carnal). If it was just a regular love-story, one would understand why Chia Chi doesn’t want to kill Yee. As it stands, however, the viewer just wishes she’d execute him herself.
Meanwhile, although I love the way Lee shoots the final two scenes depicting Chia Chi and Yee’s fates, I loathe the stereotypes it reinforces. *Spoilers Chia Chi commits to the plan to lure Yee to his death. While the couple visit a jewellers, Kuang and the Juntong will ambush them, assassinating Yee. Yet, when her enemy and rapist buys her a beautiful diamond – one it’s noted earlier in the story he wouldn’t buy for his wife – she tells him about the ambush. Yee escapes and Chia Chi, Kuang and co. are rounded up and executed. When one dilutes Chia Chi narrative arc to its basics, she begins the film as a strong woman and revolutionary dedicated to defending China against the Japanese. Then, over the course of 150 minutes, has all her agency stripped away. She seals her and her friends’ deaths for the love (and jewellery) of a sadist and rapist. When artists such as David Henry Hwang, Hao Hsiao Hsien or Park Chan Wook are subverting oriental stereotypes of the submissive female and the dominating male, Lust, Caution at 10 years feels like a huge step back in terms of gender roles – detracting from how often visually sumptuous the film is.