Lust, Caution: A Defense of Ang Lee’s Underrated Masterpiece

WARNING: Important plot elements are explicitly discussed.

Taiwanese-born director Ang Lee is probably best known for the English-language endeavors that got him his two directing Oscars (Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain). But his most compelling works have tended to be the ones he’s made in Chinese (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Eat Drink Man Woman; Pushing Hands), and his 2007 film Lust, Caution is no exception to that. This story of a young woman named Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) who falls in love with the person she’s tasked with seducing, the impenetrable Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), has always been one of Lee’s less appreciated movies; it has one-eighth the number of ratings of Brokeback on IMDb and barely obtained a favorable score (61) on Metacritic. And if you watch it, you’ll see why that’s the case: it’s long (2.5 hours: as The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane put it, “by the time he [Lee] gets to the lust, it is too late to throw caution to the winds”), graphic (NC-17 for three scenes involving full nudity), and, judging by Wong’s seemingly inexplicable decision to let Mr. Yee escape from near-certain death after he buys her a diamond ring, demeaning towards women. The fact that one of the only award citations it received was a nomination for the Women Film Critics Circle’s “Hall of Shame” (Their description: “Adam and Eve in Old Shanghai. Female-assisted destruction of a nation while falling in love with torturer/rapist.”) speaks to the limited regard many hold it in.

And yet, the more you mull this movie over, the more you come to appreciate its subtleties – and realize that all these criticisms are completely undeserved. The main action may largely take place in the second half of the film, but the deceptively quiet first half provides the background necessary to understand Wong’s final actions. Her forced decision to relinquish her virginity “for practice” to a classmate and the decidedly clumsy way her classmates kill a man who threatens to expose them to Japanese authorities both explain her eventual willingness to sell them and their cause out, while her low-key dinner with Mr. Yee plants the seed for the explosion of feelings and tension that run between them in the second half. And while the sex scenes are explicit, they’re not there for pornographic flair: if anything, the sheer animalistic rawness of their intercourse perfectly illustrates author Eileen Chang’s original description that their sex feels like “taking a hot bath” that “washes away accumulated frustrations.” Cut the NC-17 factor, and there’s no way of understanding how pent-up they feel in their ordinary lives – or the release they obtain from being with each other.

The third criticism – namely, the notion that Lust degrades women – seems hard to dispute in light of Wong’s behavior at the end; the fact that Ang Lee has made a career out of dismantling gender stereotypes (see the strong female protagonists in Sense and Sensibility and Crouching Tiger, plus the gay romance in Brokeback) makes his willingness to film a story about a woman who’s treated as a sex object all the more odd. Yet if you think about it, Lee’s portrayal of Wong serves not as an exercise in misogyny but as a means of giving dignity to a person largely spurned by the conservative mores of her society. Indeed, as mentioned before, he strongly suggests that part of the reason Wong lets Mr. Yee go stems from the deprecatory treatment she receives at the hands of her male “comrades” in the KMT. Whether it comes through the willingness of her male superiors to discuss what she must do next without consulting her (even when she’s right there in the same room), the fact that the guy classmate who likes her (Wang Leehom) does nothing to prevent her from losing her virginity to another, or the fact that her father takes her brother with him to England but not her, Wong is a character who only encounters humiliation and snubs in her work for “the good side.” The tenderness she sees in Mr. Yee’s expression when he gives her the ring, however fleeting, is a moment of genuine affection that she’s never encountered in her interactions with anyone else.

Beyond her poor relationships with other people in her life, Lee also suggests that Wong’s change of heart comes from real sympathy for Mr. Yee as a person. Chang didn’t spend much time describing Mr. Yee’s character in the original story, but Lee gives us a picture of a man who, in spite of the fact that we first meet him when he’s walking through the hallways of a dark underground prison (whereas Wong is initially shown above ground at a lighted Mahjong table), is actually her kindred spirit. When he launches into angry rants on the gruesome aspects of his job and sheds tears after Wong sings a love song about being together “like a thread and needle,” we see someone who’s utterly sick of dealing with the constant mistrust, hypocrisy, and dehumanization that are inherent to his position. The controlling sadism he exhibits in his first session of sex with Wong turns out to be a manifestation of the cold façade he has to show day in day out at work: behind it is a man who, as obliquely suggested when he later notes that he only sees “fear” in the eyes of the propaganda-spewing Japanese, feels distinctly ill at ease working for a largely useless puppet government. Like Wong, in other words, he’s estranged from the larger movement he’s joined – and even though Wong’s classmates constantly describe him as a cold-hearted killer, the fact that we never see him in the process of interrogating or torturing anybody is not accidental.

Given all this, the fact that Wong shows affection for Mr. Yee at the end is not a sign of weakness but a testament to the understanding they’ve developed over time, a mutual dynamic indirectly portrayed in their sex by the fact that she starts out passively being penetrated on the bottom but is eventually shown on top doing the pumping. And if all this still doesn’t seem like sufficient reason to dispense with accusations of misogyny, consider what exactly happens during the ending. Up to the moment when Wong warns Mr. Yee of the trap her peers have laid for him, their relationship could be said to conform to traditional Chinese relationship dynamics: he carries the authority, as suggested by the fact that it’s he who’s telling her where to go to get the diamond he bought for her. When she reveals the trap to him, however, that dynamic is not only reversed – she suddenly reveals that she has power over his life, not the other way around – but, in an ultimate sign of authority, she spares him when she could have just let him die instead. Afterwards, while we see that she’s arrested and executed as punishment for her decision to place her individual desires above her greater responsibilities in the KMT, Mr. Yee acts with far less courage: he doesn’t risk trying to use his power to spare her from the firing squad (for love, you’d think he would) but instead quickly signs her execution warrant in what Lee (and Chang) implies is an attempt to save face with his superiors. The mixture of anger and melancholy on Mr. Yee’s expression in the final shot likely comes at least partially from the knowledge that Wong exhibited strength and fortitude that he didn’t even come close to equaling.

All in all, then, the gender roles in Lust turn out to be the precise opposite of what they initially appear to be. And even if you leave them aside, you’ll still find that the other elements of the movie make for a magnificently satisfying watch. The performances are stellar: Leung proves frightening in his ability to mix inscrutable stoicism with raw inner emotion, and Tang successfully maintains an air of ambiguity around everything she says and does until the final defining moment. The regular presence of mirrors provides a clever tribute to the undercover nature of what Mr. Yee and Wong do in both their professional and private lives, while the camerawork shines in every scene involving sex or Mahjong. And on a more political level, the movie also serves as both a pointed examination and a powerful indictment of the conditions of China in the 1930s: the sets are stunningly detailed in their attempts to provide a true-to-life portrayal of the Shanghai and Hong Kong of the era, while the contrast between the extended Mahjong games conducted by Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen) and images of people dying in the street provide a biting critique of bourgeois indifference. The movie received some flak in mainland China for showing how a woman fell for a supposed “traitor” – but with its insistence on focusing on two individuals who feel largely detached from the causes they’ve joined, the film is really a denunciation of war in general, a moving condemnation of how blind, jingoistic calls to patriotism, arms, and empire can easily overpower and impede an ordinary civilian’s desire to find happiness and love with another.

Many of Ang Lee’s films examine the relationship between the individual and greater society: Zhang Ziyi’s character sought to break away from conventions regarding women in Crouching Tiger, while Ennis and Jack in Brokeback tried and failed to find a way to overcome the homophobia of the world around them. In Wong Chia Chi, Lee once again succeeds in breathing dignity into a misunderstood being. He turns what could very well have been a retrograde story about sex and seduction into a far more thoughtful examination of one woman’s attempts to assert herself against a culture largely resistant to such endeavors – all while also wrapping us inside a time-capsule portrayal of the greater historical context. Lee has never had the stylistic creativity of Wong Kar-wai or Hou Hsiao-Hsien. But here, with his uncanny ability to provide an almost-novelistic analysis of humans in all their emotional intricacies, he shows why he’s the Chinese-language director who’s obtained the greatest amount of international recognition. This is a film that provokes you days after you’ve watched it: beneath the surface, it leaves just enough unresolved with its nuances and contradictions so that you find yourself constantly trying to reinterpret it. For that, it fully deserves to be called a masterpiece, unsung and unrecognized as it may be.

***

Lust, Caution (2007)

Country: Taiwan. Dialogue in Mandarin, English, Japanese, Hindi, and various Chinese dialects.

Starring: Tony Leung, Tang Wei, Joan Chen, Wang Leehom

Running Time: 158 minutes

MPAA Rating: NC-17, “for some explicit sexuality.”

Produced by: William Kong, James Schamus, Ang Lee

Written by: Wang Huiling, James Schamus. Based on Eileen Chang’s 1950 short story of the same name.

Directed by: Ang Lee