Lust, Caution (2007)
Director: Ang Lee Time: 158 minutes. Color. Subtitles.
This aptly titled cautionary tale about the unfathomable mysteries of love and desire transplants the seeds of Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious to World War II China. Beautifully atmospheric and gorgeously shot, as you’d expect from the director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it’s subtly acted and deliberately paced, more Chinese opera than Hollywood movie. It’s also probing, periodically brutal, often bittersweet, and laced with ironic and laugh-out-loud humor. Like Notorious, Lust, Caution is structured like nested Chinese boxes, a play within a play within a play with a simmering sexual triangle at its center. But unlike Notorious, it doesn’t end well.
It opens not long before the end of the war, during a perpetual mahjong game among four Chinese women in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in the 1940s. Superficial and ambitious, they whisk the tiles around with carefully manicured, dangerous hands while they gossip about the black market, their husbands’ ranks in the pecking order, unintelligible local people and dialects, and eating out. Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen) is married to a top cop (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) who does the occupiers’ dirty work. Mrs. Mak (Tang Wei) is married to an import-export jobber in Hong Kong, and while making contacts for him in Shanghai she stays with the Yees. Or so it seems. When the tight-lipped, coiled, vaguely sinister Mr. Yee walks in, their eyes stab toward each other, miss, then finally lock, just for a second. She makes an excuse to leave, and we step back in her memory three years.
As a student named Wong Chia Chi in Hong Kong, she joined a theatrical group. Formed to stage amateurish morale-boosting melodramas, the group morphs into an amateurish resistance cell when the Japanese close in. Their fervent leader, Kuang (Wang Leehom), picks the first target: Yee, who is already close to the Japanese. Wong (who has a crush on Kuang) will seduce Yee and lure him where they can assassinate him. After some hilarious “training” (none of the would-be resistance fighters can hit the bottles they aim their new pistols at; Wong, a virgin, has to learn about sex, uh, hands-on from the only male in the merry band who’s had any), their plot collapses. Yee suddenly leaves for Shanghai, and his collaborator, who knows Kuang, pops unexpectedly into their upmarket hideout. When he shakes them down, they kill him, in what may be the longest, funniest, and most telling demonstration ever filmed of how hard it is to kill someone if you don’t know how.
The cell scatters, three hard years pass, and back in Shanghai’s warren of alleys Wong Chia Chi is hollowed-out, stranded, living life by rote between handfuls of rice at an aunt’s house. But her friends, now reformed and trained as a bona fide resistance cell, have been retargeted at Yee— and Mrs. Mak is to be their cat’s-paw, with unrequited Kuang as her handler. Things seem to go more or less as planned, until barely perceptible hints gradually gather that Yee and Mrs. Mak may be up to more than torrid sex (the ten minutes or so of very explicit couplings forced the film into an NC-17 rating). How that plays out twists Hitchcock one more turn.
Originally published in the February 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.