As you have probably gathered, I have watched my fair share of films. There are some that are indelibly printed on my memory and others that I know I have watched, but have little to no recollection of the plot. I originally saw Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007) at a late night screening in Hong Kong. Over the next few days I couldn’t stop thinking about the film, going over its images and psychological plot twists. A number of years later when I watched Lust, Caution again, I wasn’t surprised to discover that I was anticipating certain gestures and images that had obviously been kept in my memory. I tend to believe that this is indicative of an exceptional film.
Mostly I would say, I was in the mood of love, romantic love, for this period of my career, of my life. Something after my mid-life crisis, I think I want to get into something I feel I missed in portraying or in going through myself personally. I don’t know what it is, they attract me, they draw me to make a movie. I was dealing with prohibited romantic love, something that is yearning, something impossible, something that is so difficult to portray, to put a word… definition on.
– Ang Lee
Although literary adaptations can sometimes be absolute disasters that see the original author denouncing the resulting film, James Schamus and Wang Hui-Ling’s screenplay not only evokes the mood of Eileen Chang’s novella, but also beautifully fleshes out the story’s fragmented details and ambiguities. Predominantly set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai during the 1940s, Lust, Caution centres on a group of students who plot to assassinate the Imperial Japanese Army’s most powerful Chinese collaborator (Tony Leung Chui-wai) and the female agent (Tan Wei) who seduces him. Like so many of Lee’s films, the period is impeccably recreated and every element of the World War II setting is intoxicatingly stunning. Although the film is indisputably gorgeous to view, it is merely the surface to a rich narrative.
The juxtaposition of sexual betrayal and political/national betrayal is at the heart of the film’s complexity. Heavily censored in Mainland China, Lust, Caution represents sequences of unsettling violence and graphic sex scenes. However, neither the violence nor the sex is gratuitous and is cleverly utilised to set up the thematic frame of the film. Lee captures both with such an unflinching intensity that he suggests that they are almost indistinguishable. In this sense, both sex and violence are bound up with brutality, confusion and emotional abandon.
And it is the uncertainty and the ambiguities of the film that make it such evocative viewing. Lust, Caution concludes with emotional threads left it tatters, and its unexplained actions haunt the viewer. It is one of the most mesmerising historical dramas that I have seen and certainly confirms Lee’s directorial artistry.