After his Best-Director Oscar for Brokeback Mountain (2005), Ang Lee's latest movie is the Chinese (with English sub-titles) Lust, Caution. This overlong epic (157 mins) is a beautifully filmed espionage erotic thriller set in 1942 Japanese-occupied Shanghai. Playing against type, Tony Leung plays Mr Yee, a powerful and cruel Chinese collaborator who has risen to be head of the secret service. And Wei Tang, in her debut movie role, plays Wong Chai Chi, a Chinese student sympathetic to the Chinese resistance movement.
In the early part of the movie, Wong joins a Hong Kong student drama troupe and finds her natural talent in acting. The troupe initially wants to rouse the Chinese into supporting the war effort, but decides to take more direct action by trying to get close to assassinate Mr Yee. Wong goes undercover as Mrs Mak to befriend Yee's wife and hence get close to him. Through a series of events, the first half of the movie ends in a violent murder, which sends Wong running away from Hong Kong to Shanghai.
In the second half of the film, Wong is now in Shanghai, and is found by the resistance and once more asked to become a spy, getting close to Mr Yee. This time, she moves into his home, and his interest in her becomes physical. As head of secret service, he mistrusts everyone, and he captures, interrogates and executes any spies and Chinese resistance members. He is a person standing at the edge of a nihilistic abyss. After forcing himself on her, it is clear he wants control of her. She hates him, but continues to play her role to perfection, giving him no cause for suspicion. As time marches on, he continues this "affair;" the movie is explicit in its showing of this sexual activity. Though this is critical to the plot, it is really not necessary for the acts themselves to be on camera.
The turning point comes in a Japanese brothel, where he has her brought to meet him. Here she sings him a love song, and uncharacteristically, Mr Yee weeps, he is so touched. At this, it is clear his feelings for her are deep. So deep in fact, that he will buy her a huge diamond ring. This causes Wong to understand the depth of their relationship. What started as rape becomes love. And with this discovery, she says "Go now." This is the third movie this year where this phrase is a critical plot development (the others are Away from Her and Dan in Real Life). The movie ends with an unexpected twist that causes Lust to be a tragedy.
Lust, Caution is certainly not for everyone. It is a strong movie for those who can see beyond the violence and sexuality. And it makes us think about the long-term effects of playing a role in real life. After a while, can we remember who we really are? When we hide behind a mask, does that mask morph our face until we actually become the mask? Such role-playing can cause habits, good or bad, to form and to become permanent parts of our character. So, what masks do we wear in public? Even in private? Are they molding us into their image contra Romans 12:2?
Lust, Caution also asks the question of what love really is. How do we know when we really love someone? Can we move from hate to love in a relationship? And if we do love someone, are we prepared to sacrifice for them, even if that sacrifice is all that we have? This inscrutable Chinese movie opens its masks for us to challenge our own ethic.
Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs