Monday, December 08, 2008

Lust, Caution

Set in World War II Hong Kong and Shanghai, Ang Lee's Lust, Caution (2007) is a restrained (up to a point) study of a romance between a Chinese collaborator with the Japanese and the resistance agent trying to set him up for assassination. The collaborator is Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), who oversees a secret police unit that ferrets out resistance fighters and other dissenters, and Wei Tang (Wong Chia Chi), who as a first-year college student joins a student resistance group. She is young and inexperienced, but she joins the group because she is attracted to its leader. At first the students demonstrate their resistance by putting on patriotic plays. After their first production is a success, they decide to take more serious action by plotting to assassinate Mr. Yee. The film details the efforts of the group to set Yee up for murder. They notice he is attracted to the young Wei Tang, so they set her up impersonating the wife of an importer. She uses the name Mak Tai Tai, and she insinuates her way into the social group of Mr. Yee's wife, Yee Tai Tai, with whom she is soon playing mahjong on a regular basis. Her plan is to entice Mr. Yee into an affair.

"Caution" in the title refers both to the precautions that the student take in their plotting against Mr. Yee and also to Mr. Yee himself, who worries about assassination and has numerous bodyguards protecting him. He tells Wei Tang that he doesn't go to the movies (a favorite activity for her) because he doesn't like the dark.

From their first meeting there is a real attraction between Wei Tang and Mr. Yee, but it takes three years for an affair to begin. When it does begin, the "Lust" aspect of the title comes into play. The love scenes are graphic and intensely erotic. While Mr. Yee at first begins the affair as an aggressive and even abusive lover, he is soon fully in love with Wei Tang. She reciprocates, even while she continues to plot with her fellow resistance fighters his assassination. When he buys her a beautiful and expensive ring, a gesture which both of them seem to recognize as a more formal and serious profession of his love for her, she has the opportunity to set up his murder. Then she must decide whether to be faithful to her comrades or to her lover.

In such films as The Ice Storm (1997) and Brokeback Mountain (2005) Ang Lee has shown his ability to dramatize repressed tension and desire. He uses that tension to great effect here—sexual tension, suspense. He also illuminates an aspect of Chinese society just before the Second World War that is largely unknown to many westerners. Shanghai, like Hong Kong, is a British colony, and there are a number of scenes when Westerners appear in various roles, especially as waiters at a restaurant. Many affluent Chinese people are shown living what appears to be a western lifestyle. Wei Tang speaks several dialects of Chinese as well as some English.

One can sense early in the film the tragic course the plot will follow. The interest of the film stems from the two main characters, their love affair, and the way in which events work themselves out. The film's plot—about a love affair between bitter enemies—is not that novel, but Ang Lee's treatment of it is successful nonetheless.

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