Lust. Caution. Lust, Caution. Lust...Caution.
The English name of Ang Lee's 2007 film consists of two words. Taken separately, they stand alone as individual concepts: Lust, a primal, human urge; Caution, an evolved, societal tool. Put them side-by-side, and contrast emerges: primal versus evolved, individual versus society, incongruent. Poke a little hole in the membrane that separates the two, and dynamics shift. Lust surges in the face of Caution. Caution stares right back, coolly, unflinching.
Make that membrane even more porous... and the two start to bleed. Can you see it? The red, thick goo of Lust languishes, expanding ever so relentlessly... and the pale, milky fog of Caution determinately surrounds Lust, permeating through crevices, suspending, until the red is only visible as a faint, blushing pink through the suffocating, white curtain.
Born in Taiwan and educated in both his native land and America, Ang Lee is a provocative blend of eastern sentimentalities and western sensibilities; a filmmaker with a precise feel for what he wants. The title of his 1995 film, "Sense and Sensibility," seems appropriate.
"Lust, Caution" opens in Shanghai, China in 1942. The opening shot looks in the face of a German shepherd, and tilts up to the face of a man. Observe this quiet link between man and beast. It is an important theme that is reverberated throughout the film.
We float up the stairs of a house, following the trail of indistinct, womanly chatter, through a darkened corridor into a richly decorated room with a Mahjong table at its midst, surrounded by four Chinese women at its sides. The air is sweet with scent of extravagance. Expertly cut cheongsams glide over well-preserved figures, lush fabrics intimately outlining curves of their adorner, its silky weight whispering of pearly flesh beneath. The upper class women giggle and gossip while their immaculately manicured hands float across the tabletop like marble sculptures that come to life, precisely picking up, sorting, stacking, and throwing down Mahjong pieces with a well-oiled ease. Golden hoops and set gems cut through the air in a blur, occasionally catching light and reflect off a glint that is too bright to the eye. It's the 1940s in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, and everything seems possible and uncertain. Outside, the alleyways are dark.
This is marketed as an espionage thriller. It is much more than that. Filmed at times in the tradition of film noir, shadows shape intentions and frame faces. It is also a love story, one of deception, patriotism, self-preservation, of lust, and of caution.
The story starts three years before that fateful Mahjong game, in Hong Kong. The Japanese are closing in, and patriotism boils amongst young blood. Wong Chia Chi (Wei Tang), a first year Chinese university student, falls in with a group of eager fellow theatre students, and they come up with a plan to assassinate Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), a high level Chinese official working for the Japanese--a traitor to the homeland. The gang has no experience in anything of this sort, and their naiveté fuels all the courage they need. The plan takes an unexpected turn when Mr. Yee and Mrs. Mak, Wong's cover, meet. He takes an immediate interest in her. She is a natural actor and responds in kind, believing this is the "in" they need. Once the spark is lit, there is no turning back. Unbeknownst to them, the fates of these six young people were forever sealed in the first look that passed between Mr. Yee and Mrs. Mak.
The pretense comes to an abrupt, bloody end when Mr. Yee moves to Shanghai. Three years later, everyone finds themselves in the same city again and as fate would have it, in the same predicament. The naiveté has long been stripped away by life and war. Japanese rule the city. Death and poverty litter the streets of Shanghai while the rich and powerful live in bored extravagance. That's always the way it is. That was the way it was.
What follows is the living-out of the fate of Mr. Yee and Mrs. Mak. They are from different worlds: a security official who lives in shrouds of secrets and a poor young woman with nothing to live for. But he is a man that many want to kill, and she is a woman hired precisely by those to kill him. He is a traitor to his country. She is a patriot; at least she thinks she is. For all those reasons, the two people most unlikely to meet, meet once again, and they begin to finish what was interrupted four years ago.
What ensues you can imagine. The sex is explicit, and the film has gotten more attention for its NC-17 rating than its story. This is unfortunate. The sex is not gratuitous. It is the ultimate portrayal of intimacy between Yee and Mak: physical, emotional, and psychological. These are two of the most fear-filled, confused, and desperate individuals who existed. Yee can have anything he wants, but he is so scared of death, so consumed with the preservation of his mortality, that he can hardly find pleasure in all that is readily available to him. His wife, his wealth, his job, his secrets are no longer passions but shackles, and he wears them with an air of stoic endurance. He endures them because he must, and he has accepted that... until he meets her.
Mrs. Mak is a cover, but for Wong, it is an escape from her life in reality. Abandoned by her father and lost to her friends, she floats through life with a ghostly hopelessness. She insists on going to school just to feel some kind of purpose, even though all that is taught is Japanese, language of the oppressors who has sucked out the hope in her life. She goes to movies and cries in the dark, but even films are interrupted by war announcements. Escape is hard to come by in those times... so when an opportunity presents itself, she seizes it, and she meets him.
Their relationship quickly ends up in bed, and that is where it stays, most of the time. That is the only place where they both feel safe - stripped of covers, naked - and all that is visible is their lust for each other. Within the lust caution is exerted. They look at each other intently while their bodies engage, trying to find any trace of deceit and secrecy. They physically exhaust each other, fighting for climax, for weakness. This is a battle of will, and tangle of limbs are merely soldiers of war.
"I hate you." She says. "I believe you." He grabs her. "I haven't believed anyone in a long time, but I believe you." He shakes her with force. "Say it again."
The problem with humans is that we are emotional creatures. Emotions are like floods. Allow a crack in the barrier, and before you know it all comes crashing down.
"You shouldn't be so beautiful." He wraps his arm around her in an iron vice, as if trying to squeeze out his desire of her, furious with his loss of focus.
"He knows better than anyone the extent of pretending." She gasped, when asked by superiors to stay in the role longer. "He not only invades my body... but my heart. Only if I faithfully stay in this role can I burrow into his heart." She breathes harder. "He makes me bleed and cry every time, only then will he be satisfied, only then will he feel alive in the dark. Only he knows that it is real."
This was a losing game from the start. They both tried to conquer each other while deceiving each other. Lust was their weapon of choice, and caution their armor. But even the most intimate act cannot strip away all that armor. Or maybe it did, eventually. They started to injure each other, inside. The seed of lust grew and grew, and started to chip away at the armor of caution from within, and they were both helpless against it. The ending was inevitable. It could not have ended any other way. Watch the last shot of her, observe the flashback to those innocent days, and weight the consequence of that one, simple choice she didn't even know she made.
The film opens with a shot of a beast and a man. It closes with a view of just the man, Him. Observe him sitting in the darkness that he is afraid of, then emerging towards the light, and walks into it. But even then he was never completely in the dark. He kept the light on himself, partially, as if afraid of fading into oblivion completely. And when he stands up and leaves the bed that he once shared with possibly the most real love of his life, his shadow lingers until the very last frame. He never really left the dark either. The beast in him is alone now, again, and how long will it be before it rips him to shreds?
Tony Leung is a poet of wordless longing as demonstrated in Wong Kar-Wai's oeuvre. Here he pushes the longings down deep, covers them with cold menace, and allows you to see the bubbling of both. There are many fine actors, but no one does melancholy like Tony Leung. No one does a longing look like Tony Leung. And no one can make you feel like breaking away into a million pieces, by simply walking away, into the shadows.
Tang Wei shows extraordinary courage in her first role, portraying a woman who endures emotional and physical assault with tenderness and strength. She grasps firmly onto the heart of her character - a young woman whose light is dimmed but not snuffed; A young woman who is a victim of her times and though unable to escape it, struggles to survive within it; A young woman who against all odds, ultimately chooses her own fate. Tang has been criticized to look too naïve for her role, but that is precisely the point: how naiveté and innocence can, in the name of moral righteousness, be trampled for the good of country to the destruction of the individual.
A recurring theme in Ang Lee's work is the exertion of individual identity within confines of societal standards. From "The Wedding Banquet" to "Sense and Sensibility" to "The Ice Storm" to "Brokeback Mountain" we meet people of unique identities who long for connection, but are helpless to fully realize them and themselves within the particular confines of their lives, be it cultural, economical, social, or sexual.
Across centuries and borders and classes and genders, passions are inevitably stomped out, and propriety hardens its hold. Reality set in and these good people are asked to face it. However, hope is always present, not as a tiresome third act but threaded through the identities of the characters, through their fierce intelligence, quirky exertions, and their sheer will to survive in a world that may be indifferent to their happiness.
His latest film,"Life of Pi," is no exception. This is the humanity of Ang Lee's filmmaking. He looks upon our struggles with no irony or contempt, but a curiosity to understand and a desire to be moved. His arsenal is wide and varied, and he isn't afraid to use whatever is necessary to move us - be it melodrama or CGI or nuanced dialogue. This is why we resonate with his stories - because they so honestly and lovingly reflect those of our own.
Lust, Caution. Translated literally from English, it becomes "色,戒" (Se, Jie), the Chinese title of the film. Translating the Chinese characters literally in the other direction, you get "Color, Ban." The ban of color results in a void, filled only with shades of black and white. It is a simple state, non-emotional, ordered, but it is not real. We live our lives in color and chaos. Humanity is color. The emotions that mark our identity are colored, and are evoked through color. How ironic is it, that the caution against lust, one of the most powerful and colorful human emotions, is also synonymous with its complete removal. It is not a caution, then, but a complete wipe out of one's humanity.
The line between lust and caution is a foggy one. Tread carefully - as once blurred, one may wipe out the other entirely.
"Even the favorite reviews, the audience response is the movie is too slow, deliberately slow. But for the Chinese audience, the biggest complaint is it happens too quick. I think the historical background that build into our genes is different. American people has never been occupied. The deep sadness and sentimentality, the cultural background that relates to melodrama that we relate to and grow up with, the propaganda, I didn't imagine the difference is so big. It's a very interesting cultural phenomenon." - Ang Lee