Ang Lee: Lust, Caution

I saw Ang Lee’s latest film yesterday. I was expecting to like it, but it surpassed all my expectations. Very draining difficult film, but worth all the pain.

If you haven’t seen it what you’ve probably heard about it is the sex scenes. These will definitely be cut in mainland China, whoch presumably is the biggest market for the film which was made in Mandarin Chinese and set in Shanghai and Hong Kong. I’m not sure about he Chinese market but I guess the film may be seen as a more of a mass market film there and less of an arty minority film. It will have to be distributed without the sex scenes which will make the film easier to watch since they are disturbing if erotic. Do not expect erotic entertainment, the sex is graphic and the actors are attractive but the sex is expressive of alienatated emotions and watching them draws the audience into the pain of the characters.

The film is set in China from 1938 to 1942, dealing with the Japanese invasion and occupation of China. Idealistic naive patriotic students decide it is their duty to kill a pro-Japanese Chinese in a non-occupied part of China. The idea of killing a man who is not at that point obviously involve din anything beyond pro-Japanese politics is intrinsically disturbing and becomes more and more disturbing. In trying to kill the man the group turns a female member into the real sacrifice. She is already hurt because the leader of the group ignores her affection for her friend. He father has gone abroad and remarried without enabling her to join him. She puts on a brave face to her friend but weeps in the cinema while watching Intermezzo (a film in which a female character played by Ingrid Bergman has to accept that her lover is going back to his wife and children). This emphasis on the power or cinema is very appropriate to Lee’s film which shows the power of cinema to take us to many difficult places. The young woman’s identification with fiction is laso emphasised in the patriotic film the student group stage. On one level the play is pure manipulative propaganda, on another level the play shows the real suffering of Chinese women who lose husbands, fathers and brothers dying in the war against Japanese invasion. These incidents set up the way the young woman is invested in fiction and is therefore suitable for a role in the assassination. Her role is to be the honey trap, to play the role of a superficial rich woman who befriends the man’s wife and can then get him into a love affair. All the students are sexually inexperienced apart from one of the young men who has been with prostitutes. The young woman is first sacrificed by the expectation that she will learn about sex with the rather insensitive young man. She attracts the attention of the collaborator but loses touch with him when he has to move suddenly from Hong Kong to Shanghai. Already a strong rapport is shown between the troubled young woman and the collaborator who is married but is very suspiciuous and very alone most of the time. Just as the students are pulling out, the unwitting intermediary turns up having realised what was going on. He is going to blackmail them and carries gun. They overpower him but find it takes several difficult attempts to kill.

The young woman is in Shanghai years later living with her aunt in occupied Shanghai when the resistance catches up with her. The student leader has now become a professional agent and leads her into a new plot against the collaborator. The leader of their cell promises to pass on a letter to her father and send her to her father after the job is finished. However, he burns the letter and clearly regards her as a sacrifice to the cause to be manipulated. She works hwer way again into the circle of the man’s wife. He is now heading a counter intelligence organisation detecting, imprisoning and torturing the Chinese resistance. Very indirectly she overcomes his barriers playing the role of a bored wife. When they become lovers their first encounter turns into a sadistic assault on his part. At the end of that encounter both seem to be tormented by conflicting emotions. Their later encounters are less directly sadistic but the energetic sex is full of sado-masochistic overtones and extremes of emotional conflict. We never know if the man suspects she is a spy or not, though if he does he has probably pushed the suspicion a long way into the back of his mind. The relationship acquires a more positive aspect as the man shows that his ugly work troubles him and that he can be very sensitive and caring. The cell leader ignores her desperate pleas to be released from this tortuous situation. In the end she gets he revenge on the cell leader and her friends by warning the collaborator in a jewelry shop where the resistance is about to kill him. He has bought her a ring with a stone of heart breaking beauty and her commitment to the plan collapses. The gang is arrested, including the young woman. The collaborator resists the opportunity to torture her and orders their rapid execution. Evidently the young woman welcomes the chance to confront her friends with the consequences of their cruelty. The collaborator is left even more lonely and emotionally empty than he had been in the first place.

What qualities does this film have?
Time: The film starts towards the end of events showing the young woman playing mahjong with the wife of the collaborator and her friends. There is a jump back to 1938 and the events that led up her life in Shanghai. We return to the starting point and the film begins to end.
Character and Masks: The young woman is perfect in the role she is playing as a bored rich wife. She becomes that role more than she is her previous self, even though it has hateful consequences.
Drama, song, cinema: various incidents show the young woman expressing something hidden about herself through acting, singing and her emotional reactions to cinema.
Totalitarianism: I don’t know what politics the student group have. They talk ion a Marxist way but use no Marxist symbols, so maybe they are Kuomintang (conservative-nationalist main non-communist party in mainland China before 1949, and the only party in Taiwan for decades after the fall of mainland China). In any case, the sacrifice of the young woman and and the destruction of the moral personality of all members must comment on Maoism and possibly on the methods of the Kuomintang.
Destructive unintended consequences of idealism.
The moral destruction of all in a time of extreme violence.