A group of four well-off 1940s Shanghai women sit around a small square table, nails painted, faces powdered. They play mahjong. Hands flit in and out of the centre as counters seem to move of their own accord; mouths move, eyes flit from face to face. The game seems to be reflecting the conversation, or vice versa, distrust beneath a veil of implacable politeness, strategies slowly unfolding, nobody truly knowing their opponents.
This opening scene is the film’s ‘present’, and we spend the rest of the time playing through the past that led up to it. Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution pushes both love and suspicion to the limits in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. Following a young Chia Chi (Tang Wei), part of a college drama troupe fiercely loyal to the Chinese resistance, the story unfolds over a leisurely two and a half hours as the group hatch a plot to assassinate Yee (Tony Leung), who has joined the Japanese government and collaborates with the killing of Chinese, in what quickly becomes a long and morally complicated mutual seduction between Chia Chi and Yee. The film plays through a series of tightly structured scenes in an exploration of long buried emotions, hidden intentions and the dictates of an impassive, pulsing loneliness.
Adapting a short story by writer Eileen Chang, Lee follows the precedent he set in Brokeback Mountain (2005), which retold Annie Proux’s eponymous short story, yet has commented he felt no need to reproduce Chinese art’s austere tendency to reveal truths through hiding them. This film thankfully leaves plenty of space to breathe, and makes good sense on its own terms. It is certainly a long time before the mysterious Yee and shy Chia Chi’s disarming gazes give way to their full and graphic passions. And when they do, it is simply how they try to connect and truly trust one another; yet its their formal moments that really brim with both dark and light shades.
In fact, the film was awarded an 18 certificate for its sexual explicitness after premiering at the Venice Film Festival, and comments the graphic passion is necessary to this cinematic re-telling are not misguided; hopes it might make the 18 (N-17) band more respectable perhaps naïve. (It might simply be better to get rid of such ponderous age restrictions.)
Nevertheless, the overarching plot is simple enough, a real gem, both dramatically and cinematically, and familiar enough to allow new embellishments to shine. Yimou Zhang’s more abstracted House of Flying Daggers (2004) sprang to mind, similar in its tale of two lovers from different sides of a bitter war, though there’s no flying ninjas here. The violence is messy and tearful. A murder the troupe commits, first stabbing in the gut, then the back, then shooting, then letting fall down the stairs, the man who finds them out, is a genius scene that captures the amateurish innocence, determination and rawness of these young heroes so set on defending their homeland from the invaders. This is a far cry from the slick martial action of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2003), and just as good in turning portrayal of violence to deeper purpose.
Likewise, when it becomes obvious the innocent Chia Chi must physically seduce her target in the Japanese government to gain his trust, and so should practise her skills, serious discussions have obviously been had about which young man has enough experience with prostitutes to be her guide, and she duly sets about her task armed with puffy eyes and packets of cigarettes. This is cute and well-observed, almost shadowing the moment when the gang march home together tipsy singing a patriotic song. Lingering over these oddly innocent moments of sex, death and nationalism creates an atmosphere of patient observation that allows the more hardened and complex emotions that characterise the second half of the film to emerge. Yet despite appearances, these are ultimately characters who never grow up.
Not quite a set piece about goodies and baddies but not exactly a sympathetic portrait of the political complexities of the 1940s, this film’s maturity lies in its caressing exposition of the illicitness and necessity of love and human closeness - and the importance of self-preservation, secrecy and outward stability. What’s noticeable in fact is the lack of any deep sense of good and bad beyond what personally affects the protagonists (many have lost those close); there are simply ‘sides’ - and ‘people’. Glimpses of queues of destitute waiting for a corner of bread whilst passing in a car (only the very rich can afford petrol, we’re informed by the chauffeur) or a visit to a Geisha house in the Japanese part of the city are only useful background mooring points for the wide, semi-violent zig zags of the pseudo-sado-masochistic relationship that develops between Chia Chi and Yee.
And following them both throughout the city, the peculiar mix of America, China and Japan in this period and place comes across as rich, sumptuous - almost regular. There’s almost something for everybody in the film’s aesthetic: traditional Chinese dress meets upper class flowery bedspreads, rickshaws next to huge black cars, slicked back New York hair whilst kneeling down to take tea Japanese-style.
Much has been had of Ang Lee’s Taiwanese-American identity (his next film is about the tribulations of the founder of the Woodstock festival) but it seems best to follow his own example of understated ambivalence. Here, rich husbands dabble in the black market whilst their wives are smuggling stockings. Indeed, it’s this period of stark political conflict that elevates the personal connection at the heart of this film above the pale or superficially voyeuristic, the sense of social and political transgression giving it warmth, verve and resonance. At times this seems to spill over too far: when Chi goes to see her contact in the resistance and breaks down in a tearily intense rendition of the tortuous emotional power play between her and the arranged target, he shouts at her to shut up and storms out of the room. It seems even professional Communists can’t take it sometimes.
In short there is plenty in this film to appreciate. It seems neither particularly bleak nor particularly hopeful; as with many good directors - and it seems Lee can do little wrong - it’s simply moving and considered. The real pulse of the story though, is the unfulfilled relationship between Chi and the leader of her troupe and instigator of the plot.
It’s he who finds her after she runs away and brings her to the organised Chinese resistance. He also tries, and fails, to protect her from excessive demands; nods encouragingly as she’s passed the pill that can end her life if need be. The confrontation between these two was always going to come too late: ‘Why didn’t you kiss me?’ she asks at one point, bereft, having found a kind of surrogate, darker yet deeper love elsewhere. He is too much of a boy for her. It seems much more the absence of this relationship, and the relatively more stable world it represents, that drives the narrative forward to its by now predictable conclusion. At best, we can only admire and sympathise with these characters for tackling adult realities so soon.
That this film follows in the familiar footsteps of focusing on the hopeful young and their messy, maturing personal connections in times of social and political tumult, rather than taking in and marshalling judgement on the broader sweep of events, is a moot point. This is distilled then stretched out Ang Lee, with all the technical expertise that has become his trademark. Whilst it’s perhaps the prerogative of film to be ambivalent, or to show us what we’ve never seen, it’s maybe not so much the prominence of a ‘truth’ about emotional and sexual closeness, but its dislocation from any broader social or political understanding that characterises this endeavour.
Chi lives, and dies, alone. We never get inside her but simply see as she goes from one place to another. In the end, she saves the man she loves, dooms herself and her lifelong friends to death, shot from behind kneeling above a quarry, passing only a look with the man that never kissed her, whilst Yee sits back home, brooding. Where she was, truly was, and him too, subjectively, in between all of this, we never know, and seem uninvited to speculate. We only watch.
Lust, Caution is a beguiling votive offering at the altar of the intangibility of human experience and redeeming power of love. To expect more, or less, would be maybe to expect too much.