Beautiful. Suspenseful. Sensual. Psychologically acute. All these words apply to Lust, Caution. But one more must be added: desolating. Indeed, this latest production by the amazingly versatile Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain; The Hulk; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) might be the feel-bad movie of the year. I urge you to steel yourself to see it.
The setting is World War II China suffering at the hands of Japanese invaders. In still-unconquered Hong Kong, a group of young people, under the charismatic leadership of a fiery patriot named Kuang, puts on a propaganda play urging the populace to overthrow their oppressors. After the play’s success, Kuang insists that direct action should be next: the assassination of the loathed Mr. Yee, a collaborator in charge of hunting and exterminating all resistance in the occupied city, Shanghai.
The company’s lead actress, Wang, volunteers for a pivotal role in the conspiracy. Since Yee is famously alert to the danger of assassination and takes all manner of precautions, Wang will seduce him, and make time and place available for his slaughter. His lust must batter down his caution. When Yee suddenly leaves Hong Kong for Shanghai, the plot appears to fizzle. But three years later, circumstances have shifted Wang to Shanghai, where her old comrades contact her. This time she succeeds in luring the collaborator to bed, and the conspirators close in. All the while, emotions are deranging tactics.
As in all Ang Lee movies, locale is virtually a character in the story. Just as the spaciousness of Montana mocked the frustrations of the lovers in Brokeback Mountain, the ravaging of Shanghai here parallels the subjugation of Wong’s body to Yee’s brutal appetite. The vestigial cosmopolitanism of prewar Shanghai-evoked by Jewish cafés, Arab jewelers, the Western knives and forks used in ritzy restaurants, recordings of Marlene Dietrich singing Cole Porter, movie theaters exhibiting Hollywood hits-is being stifled by the occupation, just as Wang’s patriotic idealism is being polluted by the sordid exigencies of the assassination plot. But the excellent script (by James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang, based on an Eileen Chang story) makes it clear that Wang’s spiritual deterioration didn’t begin with her assignations with Yee. In fact, the saddest aspect of the film is in the way her own artistic/political comrades-so hopeful and bohemian in the early Hong Kong scenes-are the very ones who initiate her psychological and moral downfall.
Since Wang is a virgin undertaking the seduction of an experienced man, her comrades feel she needs to be deflowered and then coached in sexual technique. (It never occurs to these innocents that a controlling personality like Yee’s might prefer a virgin.) But all the conspirators but one are also virgins, so the task falls to the youth whom our heroine finds least attractive, a would-be roué who has slept only with prostitutes. (Nor does it help matters that Wang is in love with Kuang.)
A greater shock is in store for her when a killing takes place, not the murder of Yee but of a go-between who threatens to betray the plotters. “The killing will come easy,” Kuang once promised in regard to Yee, but this unanticipated murder may be the messiest, most pathetic killing ever filmed: a blur, a tangle of limbs, a chaos of cries and thuds and blood periodically interrupted by silences in which a repeatedly stabbed body refuses to become a corpse. Disgusted by sex, harrowed by violence, Wang will be seen no more in bright, sophisticated Hong Kong but only in subdued, starving Shanghai. And there her disgust and horror will be consummated in the arms of the complex monster Yee.
The sexual encounters have earned this movie an NC-17 rating. Though the sex is all simulated, it is certainly more graphically mimed than any I have seen since Last Tango in Paris. Like that movie, Lust, Caution depicts the gradual degradation of a very young woman by an older, brutish lover. A key difference is that in Tango Brando’s bedroom brutalities are the lashings of a man unmoored by his wife’s suicide while Yee’s predatory sexuality is a component of his abiding cruelty. In his civic life he tortures and kills, and even his tender moments with Wang merely give him some respite from the ongoing tensions of a life spent dispensing death and avoiding it. Since Wang obviously knows what kind of man Yee is in his work, the pleasure she comes to take from their lovemaking is tainted. For his part, Yee is attracted to her apparent lack of fear, and even when she later tells him she hates him, he takes weird comfort in her loathing because, unlike the fawning hypocrisy of his underlings, it is a sincere emotion. No wonder Ang Lee and his cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, have given these passages not the womb-like, orange-sunset lighting with which Vittorio Storaro cosseted the lovers in Tango, but a harsh streakiness, with white light slashing through patches of darkness. These are certainly the least aphrodisiac of sex scenes.
As Yee, Tony Leung, a longtime star of Asian cinema, projects exactly the right blend of steeliness and fear, menace and despair. He reminded me of Macbeth in his final moments, reaching out to snuff that brief candle. In her debut film role, Wei Tang suffuses her physical beauty with heartbreaking vulnerability.
If Lust, Caution were primarily an espionage thriller, it might seem too slow. But Ang Lee, though proficient at action scenes when he needs to be, has other concerns here: the beauty of a life brought to bloom by idealism, and the withering of that beauty when the idealism goes awry. That is why the early Hong Kong scenes are like La Bohème without music, all youthful ardor, hopefulness, zest. And once the political plotting is underway, all the youthful qualities are blasted by the realities of dispensing death.
Lee repeatedly parallels the early lighthearted theatrical moments with such dark realities. For instance, Wang first learns to smoke for the sake of future theater roles, but she soon finds herself smoking only to impress Yee with her pretended sophistication. She has some talent at singing that might have been developed for the theater, but her most extended performance turns out to be in a pseudo-geisha brothel, as she tries to take Yee’s mind off the discordant Japanese music coming from the next room. Even the apartment the conspirators rent as a death trap for Yee is furnished and decorated with the care they would normally bring to a stage set, and when that plot fails, their hasty dismantling of the apartment resembles the striking of a stage set, a dismantling interrupted by that all-too-real go-between whom they must kill with all-too-real violence.
That’s ultimately what makes Lust, Caution so desolating. It is not the failure or success of the conspiracy but the death of youthful hopes and illusions that leaves the viewer spiritually oppressed. Even a tragedy as shattering as Oedipus Rex leaves a horizon of hope somewhere far in the distance. Lust, Caution permits no such horizon.