Thursday, April 30, 2009

Lust, Caution

"Lust, Caution" aka "Se, jie" aka 色,戒 (Ang Lee, 2007) Despite its NC-17 rating, "Lust, Caution" is a spy thriller, not a sex film (the "NC" rating was created to separate films of merit that had explicit sexual content from the porn-dominated "X" rating, but it doesn't seem to have translated for mainstream audiences). A group of drama students in Japanese occupied Hong-Kong put on a patriotic play that raises donations for the resistance. But the play's director ("Typical director," says one of the actors, "he never listens to anyone else.") decides it's not enough to raise money—a relative of his has discovered his employer is a Chinese collaborator, and the student troupe in a surge of patriotism (and drunkeness) vow to assassinate the man, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai). They set up an elaborate ruse insinuating two of the troupe as prominent business-people and over shopping trips and mah-jongg games befriend Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen). Before long, the smartest and most gifted of the actors, Chiang Chi (Wei Tang) has caught Yee's eye, and makes plans to set him up for the kill.

Despite spending hours at the movie theaters watchingIngrid Bergman and Cary Grant movies (Lee uses them specifically), she would have saved herself a lot of grief if she'd seen the only movie the two starred in together, Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious" (1946)." Spying is probably the world's second oldest profession, seeing how inexorably linked it is with the first. In "Notorious," Bergman's floozy socialite is used by intelligence services to infiltrate a Nazi cell by playing on the affections of one of its leaders. She's a honey trap, using her target's weakness for her as a weapon. Her superiors (in all matters, save moral) are only too willing to let Bergman's character prostitute herself for their ends. And like Louis Calhern and his hypocritical "Notorious" cronies, the actors-playing-resisters are only too willing (while feeling somewhat guilty) to let Chiang Chi seduce Yee.

But this is where the drama is. "Lust, Caution" was attacked by some for its "plodding" pace, and
its contained emotions, but it deals with masquerades and the subjugation of self for appearance, something that everybody* knows and buys into as a matter of course. For Lee, its another of his "repression" films, be it "Sense and Sensibility" or "Hulk" or "Brokeback Mountain" where the Id's fight is the prominent conflict on-screen.

As far as spies are concerned, this is the very well-plowed field that
John le Carré has toiled in for years, where the loyalty of the heart
betrays loyalty to duty or country. Depending what side of the Cold War you situate the tale it is a Triumph of the Will for good or bad.

So "Lust, Caution" slots in well with both the spy genre and Lee's ouvre, and one day, one hopes it might be re-discovered as a highlight of both lists.

Ciang Chee realizes her friends have no problems prostituting her.

* Well, everybody but Madonna....

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