Sex, lies, and arty escape

Let’s get this done upfront: Lust, Caution is rated NC-17. What can you expect? (Besides no children around to kick your seatback. Hooray!)

Breasts: Check

Balls: Check

Butts: Check

Pubic hair: Check

Armpit hair: Check

Vagina: Nuh-uh

Penis: Nope

Penetration: Nada

*Also, a scene of rough sex (too many words for my cute little checklist up there), and a stabbing, but not to worry, the severed members have been left to the R-rated flicks.

Those who’ve logged complaints against Lust, Caution thus far have generally done so for the same reasons “Lust, Caution”: The Short Story author Eileen Chang’s critics blew her off. It’s not necessarily relevant or political, just men and women interacting; there is no theme of progress. “Musty,” The New York Times called it. Others seem to regard the film as silly, an excuse for “explicit” sex scenes. (Anthony Lane logged the number of minutes that transpire before the first of said scenes in The New Yorker. Nice to see we’re both stepping on Mr. Skin’s toes.)

But when the now-playing-in-a-theater-near-you selection is limited to the Dane Cook comedy, the depressing 9-11/Afghanistan/Iraq War film, the ubiquitous cops-mafia-drugs drama, and
Sawstel, I say by all means bring on the World War II-era, foreign-language erotic espionage thriller by Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee. A little arty escapism is just what we need.

Lee, James Schamus, and Hui-Ling Wang have fleshed out (pun not intended, but oh well) Chang’s swift, more discreet story — my copy is 61 pages — set in Shanghai and Hong Kong, and come up with a film of approximately two-and-a-half hours, thick with foreboding and the
requisite mise-en-scène.

The writers have particularly elaborated on the main character, Wong Chia Chi, a meek student who joins a theater troupe, and is immediately — rather unexpectedly — thrust center-stage. Winning the lead role in an agit-prop play over her more conventionally pretty and theatrically-experienced friend renders Wong Chia Chi
underdoggishly overachieving.

So, she is ever proving herself even as she goes undercover at the behest of Kuang Yu Min, a theater director and fellow student whose brother died fighting the Japanese. Ring-leading a band of thespian amateur spies is how he has decided to serve his country. (You may recall from Team America: World Police, that actors do make the best spies.) He has set Mr. Yee, a wealthy inspector notorious for betraying the Chinese, in his crosshairs. Wong Chia Chi is chosen to infiltrate Mrs. Yee’s circle of friends as Mrs. Mak, the wife of a rich exporter. From there, she is to seduce Mr. Yee into a murderous trap.

Sans sex scenes, there’s really no way to get a sense of how Wong Chia Chi feels about Mr. Yee. (I suppose they could have built in a cooky confidante and hired Zooey Deschanel.) Her assignment is to make Yee believe she loves him, but like so many actors she has fallen for her despicable co-star. Call it a mutated strain of Stockholm Syndrome. She appears to us, the audience, as a successful deceiver, as she is supposed to look in her part: lustful, caring. But their sex is emotional, meaningful (simultaneous-orgasm meaningful, not roaring-fire-in-the-background meaningful, thank God). Lee captures Chia Chi’s expressions that Yee is incapable of seeing during their lovemaking, and somehow because of them the film’s ending is explicable.

Unlike Lee’s last film, Brokeback Mountain, which felt stretched to me as a short-story
adaptation, Lust, Caution’s lingering pace has a brooding quality that kept me hooked. Striking art direction and Rodrigo Prieto’s gorgeous photography didn’t hurt things any: Perfectly-composed images of a lipstick-smudged coffee cup, a man’s looming torso, a double-decker bus gliding down the street on a rainy night, and bejeweled fingers playing mahjong all mesmerized. (You should see my notes, they’re horribly I-just-couldn’t-look-away sparse.)

But most mesmerizing were the brave, understated performances of Tang Wei and Tony Leung as Chia Chi and Mr. Yee. Lust, Caution is Tang Wei’s film debut, and she is just totally believable as both the elegant, bourgeois Mrs. Mak and the displaced, poor Wong Chia Chi in this transformative role.

Leung, on the other hand, is recognizable for his work with Wong Kar Wai and his contributions to Hard-Boiled, Hero, and Infernal Affairs (the Hong-Kong film upon which The Departed is based — far superior to its American interpretation, they say). Lee’s Yee is at once crueler and a degree more sympathetic than Chang’s character, and Leung is brisk and cold in the role; as a result his slightest warmth has a water-parting grandness about it. Kind of like Lust, Caution itself.


‘Lust, Caution:’ The morning after

Step 1: Put out that cigarette and get the kettle on; I can’t have my readers dropping dead from lung cancer. Try another leaf-derived remedy for your post-Caution quivers (no, not that one): black tea with milk and sugar, or a nice gunpowder-mint variety with honey. Settle into your favorite chair, fine-bone china cup in hand for …

Step 2: A reading of Eileen Chang’s short story, “Lust, Caution.” Chang spent about 20 years of her life revising it, an insightful nugget of a tale whose language Ang Lee describes as some of the most hateful in literature. It’s well worth the hour-long investment, and her ending will leave another taste in your mouth entirely. Which is why you should steep another tea bag for …

Step 3: Letter writing. OK, you don’t have to. But if, like me, you’re annoyed that the Motion Picture Association of America regularly finds the depiction of healthy sex more objectionable than gory violence in film, then you should think about it. Instead of removing the negative, porn-ish stigma shrouding the NC-17 rating by bestowing it more fairly and more often (Just think of all the child-free theaters!), the MPAA reserves the designation for art-house films with erotic elements, while brutal torture films scrape by with an R.

MPAA: Office of the Chairman and CEO
1600 Eye St., NW
Washington, DC 20006

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