The Inner Conflict Between Lust, Caution
Dir: Ang Lee
“But if you pay attention, nothing is trivial”
This is a messy, messy movie. Not in the way it was made — it’s Ang Lee Immaculate as always — but in the story that it tells, that of a situation where you just know nothing good will come out of it, there will be no real resolution, plans will fail and people will get hurt. The whole movie is basically a wait-and-wait-and-wait for the fall, and when it does come, it’s brutal.
The main focus is on the relationship between Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), a high-ranking official in the Wang Jing-wei collaborationist government centred in Shanghai in the late ’30s and early ’40s, and Wang Jia-zhi (Wei Tang), a young woman who is recruited by the Chinese resistance to infiltrate Mr. Yee’s circle and facilitate his assassination. I’m sure you can figure out just how she goes about her ‘infiltration’ simply by the name of the movie; but, of course, there is much more to it than that. While the film is getting a lot of attention because of the explicit sex scenes (it received an NC-17 rating in the U.S.), never before have I seen a movie where the sex is so intricately detailed and vital to character development, and where it is worked so expertly into the plot instead of just thrown in as either titillation or afterthought (although maybe I just haven’t seen enough European cinema).
Aside from this, there are actually quite a few common tropes throughout, such as an examination of role-reversals, and the main one which is the whole idea of ‘where is the line between facade and reality?’ But it’s done in such a crafty and detailed way that anticipation and curiosity overtake any feeling of ennui.
Wei Tang, without a doubt, deserves an Oscar nomination for her performance. She effortlessly moves between the various personae of her character (while portraying just enough of a show of effort to make her real); indeed, aside from one emotional outburst where she plainly speaks her heart, the majority of her story is told simply by the tone of her glances and varying set of her lips. Tony Leung tries to match Tang in subtlety, and in some places succeeds, but his performance feels somewhat clumsy next to her expert grace. If she doesn’t receive any recognition for this role it will be a definite shame, but I can see the film’s rating working against her here as it will severely limit its distribution (to wit, as of Nov 18/07, it’s only grossed $4 million).
The rating could also affect the film’s overall Oscar chances as well, given that there’s only been one ‘x-rated’ film in history to ever win anything, that of course being 1969’s Midnight Cowboy. Another couple of problems are the fact that the majority of the film is in Mandarin, and, most significantly, that it was disqualified as Taiwan’s entry into the Foreign Film category because not enough of the crew were actually Taiwanese (the Academy has quotas for these things). This means it will have to compete against all the English-language films, and while Lee did manage to pull that off before, with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon being nominated for Best Picture, that film was also doubly nominated for Best Foreign Film, and everyone kind-of knew that he’d end up taking home that one as a sort of consolation prize. So this time around, unless the infamously elderly Academy members have their reading glasses primed and decide to risk over-excitement induced heart-attacks, this film could just fall into art-house obscurity.
Of Lee’s other films, this one reminds me most of the The Ice Storm, again in the way that its characters are trapped in an almost impossible situation from which no one can escape unharmed; but, while in that film the harm was in a societal-constructed tangle of emotional dishonesty into which you can see the characters marching full-force without a care, in Lust, Caution the reality of the day is war, betrayal, and carts which roam the streets to collect those who have starved to death in the night. The decisions that the characters make have actual life and death consequences, and as a result this film is grander in scope, I think, than anything that Lee has done before.
It will be very interesting to see what happens come award season. 03971semaj