on December 10, 2007
Ang Lee breaks through again with a masterful adaptation of Eileen Chang's short story, Lust/Caution (like what he did with Annie Prolux's similarly brief story, Brokeback Mountain). While the hype seems to be mostly misplaced on the controversial acrobatics displayed by Tony Leung and Tang Wei in bed, Lee's storytelling leaves one breathless.
The love story unfolds against the backdrop of 1930's Japanese-invaded Shanghai where tyranny and suffering were synonymous. Nubile Wang Jia Zhi played by Tang Wei joins the resistance movement and gets herself drawn into the role of a spy to crumble the traitor, Mr Yee. In between the espionage and wild climatic trysts, both of them unknowingly embroil themselves in love and deceit, much deeper than they would have liked themselves to.
Tang Wei, as a newcomer to cinema, is impeccable. Her evolution from a wide-eyed country girl to a seductive temptress is enough to make the hardest of most men, in this case, the distrusting Mr. Yee fall for her. Wei acts pretty much on instincts and her body language does wonders at seducing the somewhat vulnerable Mr. Yee played by multiple-award winner Tony Leung. Wei breaks down in the memorable scene where she's talking to the resistance leader on her unyieldingly sacrificial role that is both a torment and insidious attack to her emotions.
As usual, Tony has the penchant for playing dark brooding men and in this instance, an evil Chinese traitor. He does not act. His presence already commands attention as the cynical no-nonsense minister. The pivotal sex scenes, split into three parts, are not just there for visual enhancement. They actually convey the shift in roles between the two throughout their complex relationship. The raw emotions displayed on their faces were enough to convince anyone hard-hearted to think twice about the essence of love. I must say these are some of the best bed scenes you'll ever witness on film.
Of course, the supporting cast of Joan Chen as Mrs Yee and Wong Lee-Hom as Tang Wei's resistance compatriot, Kuang Yu Min, is every bit just as spectacular. In the end, the story about love is bittersweet. You'll also see how fervent the resistance movement, which puts the enemy above self and others, was through Wang Jia Zhi's eyes. Lust Caution is 157 minutes' of rewarding watch that will linger on in your minds well after the credits roll. (A+)
on December 10, 2007
I saw this movie twice in the theater - very unusual for someone as critical of movies as I am. The first time I went by myself, and the second time I took my husband, who was not initially interested in the story line (espionage and all). He also liked it a lot (though he did not have as much of a personal connection as I did with the film). I was like in a zone for a few days after I saw the movie. It really shook me to the core in a sense. A very powerful movie in and of itself, it moves me particularly because I am orinigally from China and Eileen Chang was one of my faovrite writers when I was a teenager book worm. Having grown up surrounded by the communisit propaganda, I found it refreshing to watch a movie so artfully done to create a theme about love, sexuality and loyalty. It shows how innocent and ignorant the young revolutionaries could be (something that was obviously omitted from our history lessons). This is a movie about powerful human emotions, like all the other movies directed by Ang Lee. I'm also happy to see Ang Lee sticking to making movies based on good, solid stories, instead of falling into the 'glitz overriding story' trap like so many other talented Chinese directors, Zhang Yimou and Cheng Kaige specifically.
Ang Lee said that he made this film for the Chinese audience, but I also read that he was disappointed by the fact that the Chinese media focused predominantly on the raw, sex scenes. I can understand his frustration. I wonder really how the mainland Chinese will embrace such a tale. Eileen Chang was never a Communist writer. In the book and the movie, the revolutionaries were referred to as 'the people from Chongqing.' As the Nationalist Party was based in Chongqing at the time (and the Communists in Yan'an), the revoluntionaries in the book were not Communinist members but Nationalists. That sort of contradicts everything we have learned in history lessons about the Communisit being the main heroes fighting against the Japanese and the Nationalists (the Kuomingtang) being wimpy traitors. Because of these reasons, I doubt mainland China will allow the movie to be shown in public.
But it doesn't mean the Chinese will be denied access to this beautiful film, thanks to the illegal DVD pirating industry. My sister-in-law in China has already bought the film (for a dollar) and watched it. Funny thing is she had very similar reaction to it as I did. My brother said she wouldn't talk to him for a few hours.
I disagree with some critics who called Ang Lee 'indecisive' in directing the movie. I think everything was very deliberately done and Ang Lee was very clear on what he planned to do with the story. He said that it was one of his favorite stories written by Eileen Chang. I suppose if you don't like the story (such as some other reviewers), you wouldn't like the movie. But to me, the story can be interpreted in many ways, and Ang Lee has done a brilliant job conveying what Eileen Chang wanted her story to convey. The sex scenes (not in the book) are integral to the story, as Eileen Chang wrote, "If the path to a man's heart is through his stomache, then the path to a woman's heart is through her v...." The movie is certainly not for the faint of heart.
By the way, the soundtrack is beautiful. I downloaded it from iTunes. Before I receive the DVD in the mail, the soundtrack will do. (But I wouldn't want a Chinese film that's dubbed in English. That's a crime. I'm buying it from somewhere else.)
on August 28, 2008
I first heard about Lust, Caution, like many others, due to its NC-17 rating by the MPAA. As this rating has tended to be an oracle of box office failure in the past, most studios due whatever needed to avoid it in theatrical release. Undaunted, director Ang Lee creates a film whose story and essence require scenes depicting the intimacy and emotion of very graphic sexuality. However, the film is not pornography, not sex and genitals for the sake of sex and genitals, but is rather an attempt to tell a story with the inclusion of sex for emphasis and impact--something all to often done with violence and completely overlooked in film ratings.
The story takes place in 1930s Shanghai, a Chinese city under Japanese occupation. While this setting is necessary to the plot, it also immerses the audience in a time and place completely foreign to all but the oldest generations in China today. Rations, checkpoints, suppression of movement and goods are all elements weighing on the movie's characters, but through connections and resourcefulness, most manage something just shy of a normal existence despite bearing the stress of war.
I cannot recommend this film to those easily upset by nudity or sexuality in film, nor those rare individuals averse to scenes of violence. But, for adults interested in a serious film filled with brutal emotion, the horrors of wartime, and the occasional tragedy of youthful rebellion, do see this.
on October 7, 2007
Watched this movie a couple of days ago, the more I think about it, the more I like it. The graphic scense are controversial but it's the subtleties that spoke to the meaning of the film. In general it's a little long but it's worthy to see all the beautiful details created by the Ang Lee team, the old Shanghai scenes were just gorgeous and unforgettable. I think it could be a little bit more solid, so it's not perfect. Acting and visuals were great, story was very heavy but powerful.
on April 15, 2008
Lust, Caution is an Ang Lee film based on a novel of the same name, which is in turn based on a short story called The Spyring. The story takes place in Hong Kong and in Shanghai during the late 1930s and early 1940s. This of course was when imperial Japan occupied much of northeastern China. Shanghai was ruled by traitor Wang Jingwei's collaborationist KMT puppet state. It is a story about a group of students who plan to assassinate a prestigious collaborator named Mr. Yee, played brilliantly by Tony Leung. The plot of the assassination is centered around using the attractive "Mrs. Mak" (Tang Wei) to entice him. Mrs. Mak is actually the seemingly shy and unassuming student Wong Chia Chi. The film begins by focusing on her finding the resistance's agents and her own rise among them, but it soon stays focused on her transformation to Mrs. Mak and her interactions with Mr. Yee.
I just recently saw the 2007 documentary Nanking which goes over the infamous massacre of 1937, arguably the most horrific two to three months in the history of humanity. I also recommend that documentary but especially as a precursor to the exciting espionage film we have here in Ang Lee's Lust, Caution. I've read about the Rape of Nanjing before, but watching that first really fired me up to root for the resistance in this film and helped to enhance the experience overall. Lust, Caution really does have it's share of unpredictable moments and the way it unfolds was surprisingly compelling and uneasy, but I don't want to give too much away. Suffice to say, there are some remarkably intense moments in this film and I am not talking about the well-publicized sex scenes.
The sex scenes by the way only make up about ten minutes of total screen time. Altogether there are only three or four scenes that contain sexual content or nudity within this two and a half hour movie. Yet, because the film is NC-17 we seem to only be hearing about those scenes, although the film's success has possibly encouraged similar content. I love when a film draws controversy, especially for perfectly natural reasons, but it is even better when it's a film that is effectively telling us an important and interesting story. In fact, I'd go as far as to say the film has been denounced by some for its most beautiful moments. The sex scenes are actually among the most compelling I've ever seen, perhaps it was just a little too close to the bedroom for the MPAA? I would've given this film a heavy R rating for one pervasive murder sequence but even if you do happen to have a teenager you can control enough to keep them from seeing a movie they want to see, don't worry about the sex scenes.
Ang Lee is incredibly versatile and lately he has created some hugely significant films. He has convinced me his films are always going to be worth watching out for. Lust, Caution has it all. It is interesting, suspenseful, shocking, sexy, and beautiful. The screenplay, the score, the cinematography, and the performances are far stronger than any other film released as an NC-17. That means a lot for us waiting to see a marketable non-pornographic adult rating in the United States.
"Lust, Caution" directed by Ang Lee (winner of an Academy Award for "Brokeback Mountain")is set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai during WWII. The movie is based upon a short story by Eileen Chang, and it integrates complex themes of war, sex, love, and betrayal. The movie develops slowly over the course of seven years. It centers around a young group of Chinese students who wish to assassinate a powerful Chinese collaborator with the Japanese. Naive at first, the students make connection with the organized resistance movement and pursue their plan carefully and stealthily. A young woman in the group, Wang, of little sexual experience, has been given the task of seducing Mr. Yee, a leading Chinese collaborator and the head of security for the Japanese. Yee is cruelly efficient at finding and severely punishing members of the resistance. He is also well protected.
Ultimately Wang succeeds in infiltrating Yee's circle, and the two begin an affair. Scenes of a violently sexual nature are graphically portrayed. Wang, out to kill, and Yee, out for lust, ironically fall in love, with devastating consequences to both.
The lengthy movie develops slowly and the couple does not become physically involved until more than half-way through it. The pace of the movie builds up a great deal of tension, sexual and otherwise. During the course of her seduction of Yee, Wang tells her fellow members of the resistance that she has fallen in love with her intended victim. But to no avail as the plot inexorably moves forward. An effective moment points to the relationship that might have been between Wang and one of her collaborators.
The movie is well-paced, well-acted, and offers a convincing portrait of occupied Shanghai, with its brutality, vice, and repression, as well as with people trying just to get by and on with their lives. But the core of the movie lies in the relationship between the two chief protagonists, and the exploration of the connection between violence, sexuality, and love. The movie ultimately is a tale of the mystery of the development of love in the human heart.
Total time: 157 minutes
In Chinese with Subtitles
on October 20, 2007
A visionary and voyeuristic journey through the intriguing perspective of Chinese resistance fighters during Japanese-occupied Shanghai, Ang Lee's Lust, Caution portrays a dangerous world of love and betrayal, and the destructive effect such emotions hold on those involved. Lee's espionage epic provokes the limits to which some will go to obtain the elusive and deceptive elements of love, and though excessive in both its methods and its running time, a masterfully told tale unfolds with powerful performances and astonishing realism.
In early WWII war-torn China a group of rebellious drama students led by Kuang (Wang Lee-Hom), and fueled by personal attrition of the times, ambitiously (and rather foolishly) concoct a plan to infiltrate the traitorous Mr. Yee's (Tony Leung) household and assassinate him. Young Wong Shia Shi (Tang Wei) poses as a businessman's wife and quickly befriends Mrs. Yee, allowing her to catch the attention of their target. But days of preparation and plotting soon turn to months and a tragic event destroys their efforts, causing the group to separate for several years. As Wong listlessly bides her time in Shanghai, Kuang reenters her life with a proposition to finish the deadly mission they had started so long ago. This time their amateurish approach has been replaced by Resistance support and Wong must give herself fully to the cause, rapidly erasing any trace of the innocent student she once was.
Newcomer Tang Wei turns in an exceptional performance, baring her soul (and due to the NC-17 rating, quite a bit more). Her captivating presence draws you into her dire plight and as her involvement with Mr. Yee reaches distressing heights, she must adapt or be exposed. Her utter transformation to becoming Yee's lover provides a fascinating character study, though some may be disheartened to see where it leads her. Tony Leung carries the seemingly heartless and violently passionate Mr. Yee into engaging territories of unexpected destructiveness and leaden feeling, though he never draws the intrigue away from Wong's arc. The other plotting students and the mah-jongg playing women fill minor details, save for the ambitious Kuang who realizes what he wants only after it is too late.
In Ang Lee's daring visionary style, Lust, Caution shows little restraint in its portrayal of sex, violence, and the tragic effects of war. Earning the daunting NC-17 rating, the violent romance between Yee and Wong is displayed as graphically as it gets and seems displayed only to emphasize the total immersion and transformation Wong undergoes to fulfill her role. A single scene of graphic bloodshed exists and adequately depicts the horrors of death and the mental, emotional, and physical strain required to end a life. The harrowing realism of conflict never abates throughout Lee's epic.
It would be unfair to call Lust, Caution simply an erotic thriller; it is so much more a complex and intimate examination of love, obsession, and sacrifice in one of the darkest realms of humanity. Drastic transformations, a seemingly unrequited love, and a devastating betrayal build to a conclusion as tragic as it is unquestionably destined. A depressing emptiness permeates the finale, not because the treacherous journey witnessed doesn't affect, but rather through the crushing realization that no one wins in love or war.
- Joel Massie, MoviePulse.net
Ang Lee has the ability to transform simple stories about human relationships into epic films that somehow maintain the quality of intimacy and tenderness despite the grand sweep of his productions. In LUST, CAUTION ('SE, JIE') he has once again created a symphony of a film with a script by James Schamus based on the short story by Eileen Chang, assembled a cast superb actors who convey the story's multileveled messages on the historic backgrounds of World War II Shanghai and Hong Kong using the sensitive camera eye of Rodrigo Prieto and accompanied by Alexandre Desplat's evocative East/West musical score. It is a visual triumph, a fascinating recounting of China's history about which we know little, and one of the most intriguing love stories committed to film.
The film opens in Hong Kong focusing on a group of college students who form a theater group to present plays of 'significance'. Young Wong Chia Chi (the luminous Wei Tang in her first cinematic role) is asked to join the theatrical group and she consents primarily because of her attraction to the leader of the group, Kuang Yu Min (Lee-Hom Wang, a commanding and handsome actor). Events of history alter the purpose of the art groups and they become a Resistance force against the Japanese occupation of China. The leader of the Japanese sympathizers is a Mr. Lee (Tony Leung, one of the most solid actors on the screen today) and the student group plans an infiltration into his home and life by placing Wong Chia Chi into his household. In residence in Mr. Lee's home, she learns to tolerate the constant mah jong games with Mr. Lee's wife (Joan Chen) and her gossipy girlfriends, only to await the moment when Mr. Lee will notice her and hopefully begin an affair that will result in inside information espionage. As the effects of the war tighten problems the Yees move to Shanghai and the troupe follows them: the troupe has become a committed political resistance force with plans to kill Mr. Yee and the cadre of men who support his siding with the Japanese. Wong Chia Chi agrees to follow Mr. Yee's sexual advances and in short time they are caught up in powerfully erotic explosions of lust: it is during these very frank and very erotic lovemaking scenes that Ang Lee manages to reveal the inner aspects of each of these important characters, allowing the audience to see the complete picture of how lust can dissipate caution. The changes that occur between the two characters set in motion a surprising ending, at once disturbing and understandable.
Accompanying the DVD (already in excess of 157 minutes) is a 'making of' feature and a discussion period with not only Ang Lee but also with the stars and production people that is very solid commentary and for once seems pertinent to enhance the enjoyment of the film. Some may find the extended lovemaking scenes too frankly sexual, but so much of the real grit of the story lies in the non-verbal, purely physical language that could only be understood in the way Lee decided to film these gorgeous scenes. This is an important film on many levels and will probably become better appreciated with multiple views. In Mandarin, Japanese, Shanghainese, English and Hindi with subtitles. Grady Harp, February 08
on March 7, 2008
I missed the movie in the local theaters. Before finally watching the newly released DVD at home last weekend, I had already heard much about it. Even though I avoided reading reviews, words came into my ear from unavoidable friends. No surprise would have been left, or so I thought.
When the movie finished, I found myself in an upset state. I stayed up late trying to figure out what was so disturbing. It isn't the sex scenes that everyone is talking about. It is the execution, the never finished execution of the students that include Mrs. Mak (Tang Wei). My unwriterly refusal lingered until well after: isn't he going to spare her life, as she did his?
The answer, of course, is obvious. We Chinese have a ready adage for this - "not cruel, not man," not to mention that issuing execution orders is part of Mr. Yee's profession. The question then is why I should be so shocked.
It is Tony Leung's melancholic eyes.
That night I searched on the internet and found Eileen Chang's original story in Chinese, in which the reputed 1940s author wrote the key reversal moment (my translation):
[His smile at the moment is without the slightest irony, only a bit of sadness. His silhouette from the table lamp, his eyes cast down, eyelashes like rice-colored moth wings, resting on his lean face, and she sees tenderness and compassion in his look.
This man is really in love with me, she suddenly thinks. A bang on her heart, something lost.
The store owner hands him the receipt. He slides it in his pocket.
"Go, quick," she says in a low voice.]
Nothing could have reproduced those subtle words of Eileen Chang's like Tony Leung's melancholic eyes. The incongruity of Mr.Yee's inside and outside is a source of shock. The man is capable of being poetic and cruel at the same time, and true to both, while the woman, in an inexplicable and critical moment, chooses to see only the former but not the latter. The very source of tragic consequence.
Interestingly, the story is only an artful and symbolic rendition of Eileen Chang's real love life. An extremely happening writer in 1940s China, whose legendary life later ended with loneliness in 1995 Los Angeles, Eileen Chang's most-talked-about love was with Hu Lancheng. She was 24, and Hu was a 38-year-old married man. Like the story, he worked for the Japanese occupiers and thus was a "traitor to the Chinese." That did not matter to Chang. She was in love with the man, not his job. Unlike the story, their separation later was not due to political stance, but the man's infidelity. Yet his silhouette stayed with her for a long time.
Chang wrote "Lust, Caution" in 1950's Shanghai, not long before she fled China for fear of political persecution. There might have been a personal reason for the story's ending of Mr. Yee's betrayal and Mrs. Mak's destruction.
Though there are many modifications by Ang Lee of the namesake story, for example Chang pens no explicit sex scenes or violence, Ang Lee is artistically loyal to Chang's original ending. The undisplayed execution has a deep impact on audience psychology. As long as we haven't heard the gun shots, our hallucination of humanity is kept alive. The longer the hallucination lasts, the harder the blow when it disintegrates.
(See Eileen Chang's photo and bio link on my blog "Inside-Out China")
Director Ang Lee has really outdone himself this time. I'm not sure just what his main intent is exactly with the plot and storyline he's working with here, and that's because it's so layered. It's mostly a spy story on its face, but it also deals with human interaction and just how powerful is our human desire for connection on various levels.
The costuming, set design, lighting, cinematography, set dressing... all are so rich and textured that I found myself feeling as though I was lost in a piece of art instead of watching a movie. This is a film you could watch three times over a fairly short period and you'd come away with different wonderful impressions each time.
There is not a single weak performance among the actors and actresses and the Special Features on the DVD bear this out. Mr. Lee got EVERYTHING from his cast in this one.
I must admit that I was caught completely off guard by the sheer overall quality of this film in every aspect.
I would have to say that this is, in my library, one of the ten best films of all time, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.