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Lust, Caution – artistic integrity, exploitation, sexual hypocrisy

Newcomer Wei Tang and Tony Leung

Newcomer Wei Tang and Tony Leung

Lust, Caution (Se, Jie) – Ang Lee

Never have I been so unsure of the integrity of a director’s artistic intention than with this erotic political thriller from Brokeback Mountain’s Ang Lee. And it matters. Lee’s sensitivity and reticence with Brokeback perhaps earns him the benefit of the doubt despite a lingering doubt that to have made that film’s gay relationship more explicit would have decimated its market and earning power certainly in the US.

Sadly, no such reticence is demanded for explicit heterosexual scenes in movies. Quite the reverse; pretty much the more you show, the more you make. And one can’t help but feel that this is because of a combination of our deep cultural sexual hypocrisy and blatant gender double standards. All explicit sex scenes in mainstream movies reveal everything of the woman; every angle, every act, every external anatomical detail. While by some atavistic, arbitrary, perverse sensibility or perhaps deep-seated fear, the sight of an erect penis is held to transgress some absolute boundary of coy taste and specious morality. Quite why an aroused nipple is more acceptable than an aroused penis is an arcane mystery to match the number of angels you can get on the head of a pin. Whatever moral view one takes of pornography in general, in comparison with mainstream movie-making its sexual attitudes are clear, honest, and of the viewer at least, non-exploitative. Porn-watchers get what they pay for.

I don’t doubt Ang Lee’s sincerity but in the inevitably tortuous route to funding Lust, Caution, I guarantee the fact that extended scenes of explicit heterosexual sex were, as they truly are, an ‘integral part of the plot’, didn’t deter many investors. Whereas a similar honest approach to Brokeback Mountain would have had them out of the door so fast their profit points wouldn’t have touched the ground.

These are serious issues worth thinking about and discussing. And a legitimate part of a review of Lee’s movie. Precisely because the integrity of his artistic intention is irreducibly bound up with them. If sincere, they are precisely the deep issues he wants the film to illuminate. One last point therefore before getting on to the film. Newcomer, lead actress Wei Tang who plays these scenes opposite the superb experienced actor Tony Leung, was we are told selected from 10,000 auditioners. I shall stifle an unworthy thought about this process in itself, but it does trouble me that women, even little-known actresses, are open to exploitation in such situations. If an established actress, like Meg Ryan in In The Cut say, decides to do explicit scenes she has other possibilities open to her. She has a real choice. An ambitious unknown does not. That makes me feel uneasy as I watch this beautiful young woman’s sexuality exposed for all to see on screen. You see therefore why it is crucial what judgement one makes of Lee’s sincerity of artistic purpose?

Japanese-occupied Shanghai 1942: Mrs Mak wife of a Hong Kong businessman is part of a Mahjong-playing circle of bored wives of Chinese collaborationsts at the house of Mrs Yee whose husband is a much hated head of secret police; rooting out, torturing and killing members of the Resistance. We discover that Mrs Mak is an undercover agent, real name Wong Chia Chi (Wei Tang) having a clandestine relationship with Mr Yee to make him vulnerable to assassination. Mrs Wak takes a taxi to a restaurant and makes an obviously coded phone call designed to set up the attempt on Yee’s life. As she waits Lee flashbacks.

Shanghai 4 years earlier: Wong Chia Chi is a beautiful, charismatic member of a drama group of idealistic young students using drama to express dissent at the occupation. Led by Kuang Yu Min (Leeblom Wong) they decide to try to assassinate Mr Yee at that time a collaborationist police official in the newly occupying regime. Chia Chi is tasked to ingratiate herself into Lee’s household through his wife’s Mahjong parties in order to set up an affair with Lee that will draw him out of his tight security so the group can kill him. Chia Chi is given a legend as the well-off wife of businessman Mr Mak, frequently away on business.

Chia Chi attracts Yee’s attention and eventually the two have tense private assignations where Lee superbly conveys a sense if sexual tension between the inexperienced Chia Chi and deeply cautious Yee. Reporting her progress to her student friends it is agreed among them that Chia must lose her virginity to one of the group so that she can be credible as a lover to Yee. There is only one non-virgin male in the group, whose sole sexual experience has been with prostitutes, so with a mixture of innocent embarrassment and lustless dedication he initiates Chia Chi into sexual congress with the dispassionate almost reluctant earnestness of a male student asked to do the washing up. Beautifully played, these scenes have a sensitive un-erotic charm.

Before she can apply her new-found carnal knowledge with Yee, in a shocking unexpected twist, the students are forced to kill Yee’s chauffeur who has discovered their plot. In a powerful scene, one of many references to Ang Lee’s admiration for Hitchcock (the whole plot mirrors Hitchcock’s Notorious) the students discover as Paul Newman did in Torn Curtain how difficult it can be for an amateur actually to kill a man especially with a knife. The students are forced to abandon their plot and flee. Chia Chi escapes Shanghai to live with relatives.

Three years later she is sought out by Kuang now a member of the official Resistance. She is drawn back to Shanghai to re-establish her link with Yee, now almost invulnerable at the top of the Secret police. She is now professionally run by a seasoned member of the Resistance, Old Wu. As a very bad Mahjong player who always loses money she is welcomed back into Mrs Yee’s circle.

With an arrogance born of his unrestrained power as head of the Secret police, Yee’s earlier caution with Chia Chi is abandoned. In a series of at times explosive sexual encounters he simply takes what he wants. These scenes, intentionally I think, arouse deeply ambivalent feelings. They are at once brutal, virtual rape, and yet as shot, apparently consensually physically violent. Like two boxers who have beaten each other to pulp for 10 rounds and then collapse into each others arms at the end of the fight. Trouble is, it is easy to understand the respect of the fighters for each other, but here we are invited to accept that the infliction of pain, usually but not exclusively, unilaterally by the man, is an essential part of intimacy and sexual connection. Most of the attention and comment, as ever in our culture of weirdly distorted values, has been given to the relatively unimportant issue of how visually explicit theses scenes are. The deep issue is not how much we see, but what it means. It is the nature of the intimate relationship between a man and a woman here that disturbs. And the narrative of Chia Chi pretending to be someone she isn’t adds to the ambiguity and ambivalence. As played, Chia Chi responds sexually to Yee’s aggression and violence. That’s what we see and the truth of that understanding is confirmed precisely by the film’s tragic denouement.

These are deep and murky waters with some dangerous sexual stereotypes lurking just beneath the surface: woman as temptress, Eve, bringing about the downfall of Man; woman as sexually excited by violence and male domination; woman as sexually dishonest, able to control, fake and simulate her responses; woman as willing victim to her own degradation. And finally – woman in the end either unwilling or unable to stop herself from following her instinctual sexual responses even to the point of her own destruction.

In the end my deep problem with Lee’s film is that he raises these issues but does not in any way address them. He does in two related scenes, deal well with the sheer hypocrisy of men’s attitudes to women and their sexuality. When he first recruits her, Old Wu looks Chia Chi straight in the eyes and without flinching, gives her a suicide pill and tells her she must use it if discovered. Yet later when she tells him and Kuang, who obviously loves her, precise sexual details of Yee’s brutal, often drawing blood, lovemaking, Wu becomes angrily embarrassed and stomps off. Lie, cheat, fake, sacrifice the very essence of your self, even destroy yourself for the cause – but please spare me the sexual details. This is only too depressingly familiar as an accurate representation of certainly common, if not predominant, masculine attitudes.

But this is just not good enough. Lee’s narrative conclusion leaves these dangerous stereotypes largely confirmed not really challenged. In a totally misjudged and unnecessarily literal scene when Kuang finally says he loves her, she bemoans the fact that he did not say so earlier. There is a hint here that all of the tragic events we have just witnessed, might perhaps have been avoided if only the man she loved had told her he loved her too.

This review has been a journey for me. My conclusion? Lust,Caution is a good workmanlike political thriller, beautifully shot by Alejandro Innaritu’s brilliant cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and superbly played, especially by the two key actors. But the hype surrounding it largely ignores the real sexual issues raised by the film in favour of infantile preoccupation with how much is shown not what it means. If you want to see these serious and disturbing sexual questions actually confronted, addressed, and explored with insight and not a little courage, I would recommend Jane Campion’s much neglected In The Cut with an extraordinary performance by Meg Ryan. Perhaps only a woman Director can credibly meet these issues head on. My problem with Ang Lee is that he didn’t try.

(January 2008)

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