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Mythsmasher At The Movies: Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution”

Lust, Caution, the latest film from Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee explores the intersection between eroticism and political intrigue.  Set during the Second World War, it features Chia Chi played by Tang Wei as a university student who become involved through acting in resistance to the Japanese invaders and their Chinese collaborators.  It is an interesting film that I enjoyed, but it could have been a better film.

If you will like seeing a beautiful young Chinese woman having sex, then you will enjoy this film.  If you would like seeing Tony Leung Chiu Wai, a handsome male star of the Hong Kong cinema, having sex with the afore-mentioned young woman, then you will enjoy this film.  If you enjoy history and espionage, then you will enjoy this film.  However, if you want all the fuss and noise to make a lot of sense and to be believable, then you will find yourself disappointed in what could have been better.

The story begins with a well-dressed young woman waiting in a Shanghai cafe.  She flashes back to herself earlier when Japan invaded China and how she began university in Hong Kong.

There she encountered a handsome older student who recruited her to join his theater group doing plays to raise the consciousness of the public to fight the Japanese.  She becomes a star of the show and learns that they intend to do something less theatrical–to kill a collaborator with the Japanese now operating in Hong Kong.  He is the courtly Mr. Yee with the beautiful forty-plus wife (played by Joan Chen)

They contrive to get close to him and to have her begin an affair with him.  They get a chance to kill and for some unknown reason do not act.  This is unbelievable.  Of course, we would have a much shorter movie then.

Later she returns to Shanghai and encounters some of the same people again.  There she begins an affair with Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) to set him up for the kill.  I shall not tell the whole story and kill the suspense. Another credibility problem is that a character mentions that they have sent other women to ensnare Mr. Yee and he found them out.  Why shouldn’t he with her?

Let us talk about sex.  Chia Chi’s first sex scene with her fellow conspirator to lose her virginity as preparation for the affair with Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) was absolutely necessary for both character development and story progression.  Similarly, in the guise of Mrs. Mak, her first sex scene, which was a suprise to herself as well as to her audience, was vital to establishing both the full range of Mr. Yee’s character and moving the dynamics of the story towards its conclusion.

However, some of the sex scenes seemed to me gratuitous.  They neither developed the character nor the story. 

The first sex scene with Mr. Yee raises the question.  Does the kind of sex a person indulge in reflect their personality?  Does their sexual practice reflect their political philosophy?  Is Mr. Yee’s sex life the reflection of the authoritarian personality?  Is Chia Chi’s response the reflection of the traits needed in others by the authoritarian personality?  Could their sexual encounters be a metaphor for China’s relationship with Japan?  Is there a fascist sexuality?

Lust, Caution is a worthwhile film that provides both pleasure and a stimulus to thought.