Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Behind Closed Doors

Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, 2007)

The furore over the explicit sex scenes in Ang Lee’s latest film, which sees him returning to China but working with an American screenwriter, has obscured the real nature and impact of the piece. A great deal is revealed about attitudes to on-screen sex when Anthony Quinn in The Independent can describe the sex as ‘brutal, cruel and manipulative’ and Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian can describe it as ‘sizzlingly erotic’. Both writers seem to have almost casually missed the point – it is a complex amalgamation of both, and exactly which partner is doing the manipulating is somewhat ambiguous. That the plot keywords for searching for this movie on the Internet Movie Database include ‘vagina’ and ‘nipples’ suggests, somewhat sadly, that many people are unable to approach on-screen sex through anything other than an embarrassed schoolboy’s curious gaze. Those approaching this film looking for titillating action will be left disappointed – the sex scenes, whilst undoubtedly graphic, occupy perhaps ten minutes of the film’s two and a half hour running time.

This is a film at least in part about the psychology of sex, quite possibly a great film about this difficult and complex subject. Quite rightly, Lee refused to censor the film to avoid the commercially disastrous NC-17 rating in America (although the government have done that job for him in China simply to get the film released at all). It is essential to the film’s devastating impact that the physical nature of this relationship is depicted. ‘Lust, Caution’ (brilliantly if misleadingly titled as the progression actually works in reverse) is languid and meticulously controlled, but eventually snaps violently like a tightly coiled spring.

Its lengthy and detailed portrayal of its characters’ lives and choices, and the intricate intermingling of the personal and political, reminded me of great epics such as Edward Yang’s ‘A Brighter Summer Day’ or Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s ‘A City of Sadness’. Some have highlighted the plot resemblance to Hitchcock’s ‘Notorious’, although a more recent comparison (from which ‘Lust, Caution’ emerges very favourably indeed) is Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Black Book’, upon which Tartan Films foolishly relied for a success story last year. The transgression of Oshima’s ‘Ai No Corrida’ is another obvious reference point. Viewers should also heed another warning though – in addition to the sex, the film also includes one scene of particularly savage and protracted violence (a scene which I found far more uncomfortable than any of the bedroom athletics).

The film is set over a period of four years and moves between Japanese occupied Shanghai and Hong Kong. The period set design is evocative and extraordinary, and the film offers a vivid, if highly subjective, portrait of the period. We only see this world through the eyes of wealthy collaborators, the women complicit in turning a blind eye to concealed atrocities and occupying their time by playing endless games of Mahjong (itself neatly symbolic of the very real game playing at the heart of the film). This subjective viewpoint might be considered the film’s one significant flaw – the audience is not afforded much of a sense as to why Wong Chia Chi might be drawn into the resistance, or why patriotic fervour was so strong in occupied Shanghai. The whole piece therefore involves some degree of suspension of disbelief, a greater problem when the issues at the heart of the film are very real and powerful.

It compensates for this with masterful structuring and careful pacing, beginning at its conclusion (with coded and subtle hints of intrigue and covert operations), before veering into a flashback that lasts the best part of two hours, eventually returning to where we left off. Lee elicits superb performances from his cast – particularly the two main protagonists, Tony Leung playing the polar opposite of his equally superb performance in Wong Kar-Wei’s ‘In The Mood For Love’. Where that film was all about restraint, ‘Lust, Caution’ eventually becomes about reckless abandon, and the contrast between private freedom and palpable public threat. Leung’s Mr. Yee is cold, callous and detached and, whilst we never see him at work with the collaborating government, we know that he is capable of great cruelty and menace. Tang Wei is every bit his match though – beautiful and entrancing, she is a magnetic presence, making her seduction of Yee, leaving him vulnerable to assassination, convincing in spite of the film’s aforementioned flaw.

Anthony Quinn may have a valid point about the ‘brutality’ at the centre of the film, as it’s possible that the film raises questions about the subjugation of women, sexually, personally and politically, that it doesn’t quite follow through. The sexual encounters between Yee and his seductress begin with intense violence and arguably retain a consistent element of masochism. Wong Chia Chi, in pretending to be a married woman by the name of Mak Tai Tai and dedicating her body and soul to a political cause, is subordinating herself to her male superiors. In order to play the married role convincingly, she is forced to lose her virginity to a womanising member of the resistance circle, in perfunctory and entirely unerotic scenes that contrast horribly with what is to come. The wives in Yee’s circle have little to do but play Mahjong, shielded from the brutal reality of war and politics, but not afforded independent voices.

Yet this kind of sexual politics is not Lee’s primary concern here, and may be a subject best left to another film. The film is about Wong and Yee’s transgression. Wong’s emotional involvement with Yee becomes as passionate as her initial hatred for him, and her final act of assertion breaks all the rules of her engagement, and can only have one possible outcome for her. Yee’s violent lust for Wong represents an escape from the guilt of his everyday work, and the knowledge that his position is may be doomed. Although the entry of the Americans into the war is not mentioned, it leaves him with a good deal less to lose. Their union involves violence, outlandish positions and contortions, and visibly intense passion. Through it, they reveal more of their essential natures than during any other scene in the film. The contrast between their private affair and their public personas is dramatic and effective.

Some have viewed the ending of the film as a botched anticlimax. Although it comes after a lengthy build-up, it eventually happens very swiftly and suddenly, but it is not without its own drama. Perhaps these critics would have preferred an ‘LA Confidential’ or ‘Heat’ style shoot-out, entirely out of keeping with the mood and themes of the rest of the film? Bizarre and uncomfortable as Yee’s gift of a ring to Wong seems, it cements their union, and finally renders Wong unable to complete her deadly mission. Her position is further compromised by her genuine but unconsummated love for the very handsome Kuang, ringleader of the naïve resistance circle by which she herself was seduced. In the end, moral assumptions are debunked, and it is difficult to assess who are the winners and losers. ‘Lust, Caution’ is a film brave enough to recognise that history, and life, cannot be reduced to such stark terms.

Anyone wishing to undermine Ang Lee might describe him as a ‘Jack of all trades and master of none’ due to his tendency to make what, on the surface, appear to be very different films. Yet he has consistently been interested in the stripping away of public masks to reveal the private realities beneath them, and ‘Lust, Caution’ is another masterful addition to this increasingly significant canon. In this country, it seems to have suffered critically in comparison with ‘Brokeback Mountain’ which, like this film, was adapted from a short story. I would venture against the critical grain here though – I came away from ‘Brokeback Mountain’ with a palpable sense of what it is like to live in fear from breaking society’s conventions, but little sense of why the two cowboys were in love, other than through mutual frustration. I wonder if the sense of tragedy at the heart of ‘Lust, Caution’ might be even greater – the film implies that a bond of physical intimacy is irreversible and can never be purely physical, both players left irrevocably changed or destroyed by the seduction. It is a sumptuous and triumphant piece of cinema.

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