USA / China / Taiwan / Hong Kong, 2007
Review by Jason Woloski
Posted on 30 October 2007
Source Focus Features 35mm print
Categories The 27th Atlantic Film Festival
What the hell is Ang Lee doing? He’s played Russian Roulette with movie genres for the past decade, and for every success like The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden, Dragon, and Brokeback Mountain, he gets his head blown off by a Hulk or a Lust, Caution. I admire Lee for being a risk taker, but he has the bad habit of missing certain genres’ most obvious appeals, while simultaneously getting overly experimental to mask such blindspots. Lee layered Hulk with one philosophical subtext after another without covering his comic book bases of providing a coherently angsty superhero facing an identifiable enemy. The result was a fundamentally incompetent comic book movie, a cerebral mess that was too smart for its own good.
Lust, Caution is Lee’s latest genre failure, a thrill-less sexual thriller with not enough excitement and too much meaningless sex. During Japan’s World War 2 occupation of China, a member of the Japanese collaborationist government is targeted for assassination by a patriotic Chinese theatre troupe. A beautiful young member of the troop named Wong Chia Chi, played by Tang Wei, is selected as the seductress “Mrs. Mak,” her eyes set on Tony Leung’s Mr. Yee, the assassination target. Mak falls for Yee even as she betrays him, while Yee finds in Mak an emotional connection lacking everywhere else in his life.
Lee’s narrative experiment with Lust, Caution is two-fold: make the storytelling as emotionally repressed as the characters, and never have the content of the sex scenes take on a meaning beyond two sweaty bodies humping and pumping. Trouble is, an espionage sex thriller built on a chaste narrative flow, interrupted sporadically by torrid sex scenes that never intermingle with the suspenseful context within which the sex takes place, makes for dull genre revision. Lee complicates the problem further by focusing on Mrs. Mak’s emotional conflict over falling for Yee even as she betrays him, while forgetting that building the film around Mak’s extreme turmoil only works if an independently tense espionage thriller is unfolding at full steam as Mak’s love for Yee is breaking her down. Such conflict would cause a violent intersection between Mak’s inner strife, her duty as a patriot, and the distinct possibility that the assassination plot is beyond Mak’s control and that Mr. Yee may be beyond saving regardless of her shifting desires. The best scenes in the film reflect such tensions, but for the most part Lee allows his film to meander along pointlessly.
For all my complaining, the sex scenes are compelling, and that’s not just my pants talking. Mrs. Mak plays Mahjong in Mr. Yee’s living room, but poker in the bedroom. Mak can’t reveal her tell even with a dick inside her, and in a way the film becomes about men’s fear of women faking orgasms taken to the extreme. In this sense, the sex scenes have to be ultra hot, because if Yee doubts Mak’s loyalty, then he also believes that if he fucks her hard enough she won’t be able to hide her tell. Yee eventually learns to trust Mak after ravaging her body for the umpteenth time, basing his trust of Mak on the implied logic that even if she can hide her true feelings and even if she is lying to him, there is truth in her orgasms. She really is fucking him and she really is enjoying it, even if she does so for deceitful reasons. Mr. Yee mistakenly blends pleasure and truth into being the same thing, which threatens to be his downfall.
Lust, Caution can also be seen as a story of the limits of method acting, in which an assassination can only take place if an actress is fully committed to her role. The film is also an example of the extremes of activist community theatre, in that the troupe in the film is so devoted to its cause as to take on all of China as its community – they are a traveling theatre troupe – and defend China’s national honor by assassinating a high profile Chinese traitor. Despite these compelling digressions and possibilities, however, Lust, Caution finally is an articulate film that has nothing to say. I get the feeling Lee made the exact film he wanted to make, which is strange in that the film feels exactly wrong. Lust, Caution could not be fixed up with the addition of a new scene here or a deleted scene there. It simply does not work. I finish with the same observation I started with: Crouching Tiger’s success followed by Hulk’s failure; Brokeback Mountain’s cultural phenom status followed by Lust, Caution’s contemporary irrelevance. Ang Lee likes cheating hearts, he just can’t handle rebounds.
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