At the Movies

Michael Wood

  • Lust, Caution directed by Ang Lee
    October 2007

Lust, Caution is billed as a film about sex and espionage, lots of both, and occasionally it looks like such a work. All its interesting moments, however, are about something else: style, masquerade, glances, silences. Each character in the movie has a movie running in his or her head, and when a young woman called Wong Chia-chi (played by Tang Wei), about to become a temptress setting up a collaborationist Chinese official for assassination, sits in a cinema and weeps copious tears, we know she will never be able to cry in this way outside the movie house. She is watching Ingrid Bergman, in Intermezzo, I think, and no one in her film – either in Lust, Caution or in the fiction she is acting out in the story – will ever declare his love, or say anything, as directly as Leslie Howard does in that Western melodrama. There is a risk of cliché in this thought, but I am only following the director Ang Lee down this path, and he avoids it through cleverness. In the film moderately scrutable orientals play inscrutable orientals pretending to be inscrutable orientals.

The setting is mainly occupied Shanghai during World War Two, with a long flashback set in Hong Kong. A group of students, including Wong Chia-chi, excited by their work in the college theatre (‘a string of rousingly patriotic history plays’ is the phrase in the story by Eileen Chang on which the movie is based), decide to shift into the drama of real life, and infiltrate the house of Mr Yee (Tony Leung, last seen, by me at least, in Infernal Affairs), head of intelligence for the Japanese sponsored puppet government. One of the students pretends to be a businessman, and they set Wong up as the businessman’s wife, complete with fine clothes and fancy make-up and local shopping contacts, so that she can become first a friend of Mr Yee’s wife and then the enemy’s mistress. All proceeds as planned, though very slowly: not because the operation is difficult or because Mr Yee’s defences are keen but because this is a two and a half hour movie made from a forty-page short story. The story is all about its ending, and so is the film; but the film has to find creative ways to linger.

In an interview Ang Lee generously talks about all the things a writer can do that a filmmaker can’t, but his problem is exactly the reverse: how to do all kinds of things the writer didn’t need to. About halfway through the movie the problem becomes very clear, although not disabling. Wong lures Mr Yee to the apartment where she is supposedly living with her husband. He is dropping her off after a long romantic dinner, perhaps he will come in? The conspirators are waiting behind the door, guns at the ready. He doesn’t come in, because he is cautious as well as lustful, more cautious than lustful at this moment, and the conspirators can’t run out and shoot him, it seems, nor will they have another opportunity until right at the end of the movie – although you might think that Mr Yee could be bumped off during any one of his later, supposedly torrid sex scenes with Wong. The plot and the interest of the movie are in direct conflict with each other here. The plot says Mr Yee can’t be killed now, and his relationship with Wong therefore slowly develops. The interest is all in the relationship; no matter what poor schemes a writer has to come up with to keep the man alive. There is nothing of this problem in the Chang short story.

But if this little logical hitch – and many other touches in the film, like the tender reconstruction of old Shanghai, the wartime mood, the sheer beauty of so many of the frames – makes the political thriller seem implausible, or even irrelevant, it also points us towards the work’s deepest concerns, already more than hinted at in the story (‘She had, in a past life, been an actress; and here she was, still playing a part, but in a drama too secret to make her famous’; ‘Her stage fright always evaporated once the curtain was up’).

And here film has a real advantage over a written text, since in a film story about disguise the disguise is so irrevocably what we see. We can’t get behind it, we can only imagine what else there is, whereas a text too easily (in certain contexts) balances out appearance and reality: nothing to choose between them in terms of perception. Ang Lee plays with this idea in a manner almost worthy of Hitchcock, using the looks of his actress (and of course her considerable acting talents) to set up the riddle of identity he is so interested in. In her ‘real’ person Wong is plain, almost ugly, sad, angry, a little girl abandoned in a complicated and unfeeling world – except when she is at the movies. In her role as temptress she is as glamorous as wardrobe and cosmetics can make her, with gestures and idioms that belong so perfectly to the role that we know she can have learned them only one way: from the movie script. We can certainly believe that Tang Wei can play both roles to perfection, since she is manifestly doing just that. What we can’t believe – or faint-heartedly need to pretend to believe, for the sake of the storyline – is that the plain girl could ever play the glamorous star. There are just two people here; or just a movie. When Wong brings Mr Yee home to his almost-assassination, she pauses at the door, playing with her keys, and turns to him with a sultry look that is so over the top it is a sheer delight. If you have a chance to log on to imdb.com you can see a clip of this scene. It’s not, I think, that she is actually tempting. Only that she is a perfect picture of what temptation is supposed to look like. Hard to see how Mr Yee could resist.

The sense that one person can’t really play – or can’t just play – another person is just what the movie is after. One can become another perhaps, but that’s a different story. Similar issues lurk in the movie’s much touted sex scenes, which are not only too beautiful but too theoretical to be titillating. But that doesn’t mean they’re not interesting. In their first session together Mr Yee virtually rapes Wong, the suggestion being, I take it, that an uptight collaborator can only bully a partner into submission, even when she’s entirely submissive enough already. The second session is the visual set piece, with four pairs of limbs all over the place, as if the couple were trying to compose a difficult fleshly jigsaw puzzle rather than have sex. I thought of Roland Barthes’s remark about certain scenes in Sade: ‘complexity of combinations, contortions of the partners, everything is beyond human nature.’ Then, in their third encounter, Wong and Mr Yee discover the missionary position. I couldn’t decide whether this development was meant to suggest a softening, even a normalising of the relationship or, more interestingly, the possibility that the missionary position is literally the last thing that would occur to you if you thought sex was all about secrecy and conspiracy. Either way, these contortions and straightenings of the body represent what is happening in the mind and heart.

‘Why did she do it?’ James Schamus, co-author (with Wong Hui Ling, who wrote Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon among other films) of the screenplay, asks in a handy book about the film.[*] Do what? At the last moment, with the assassination intricately set up, Wong finds she has to decide whether to go through with it – that is, do nothing but let it happen – or tip Mr Yee off. What she decides determines the ending of the film, of course, but why does she have to decide? Isn’t he still the enemy, doesn’t she still believe in her mission? The film is more delicate than the story here, since it clearly suggests Wong doesn’t even know why the question has come up. It’s not that she has finally fallen in love with the monster, or that sexual intimacy, even of the most calculating kind, gets in the way of murder. Be cautious about lust, that story would rather sentimentally go, because even simulated lust may turn you into a human being. No, it’s rather that Wong lives in a world – Ang Lee and his writers want us to think about a world – in which performance is everything, or everything you can know for sure. There is another self beyond the current action perhaps, beyond the disguise – a hard-working patriot behind the glamour and the sex, for example. But Wong can’t securely find that self any more than we can see it on the screen: it’s just a hypothesis in both cases. And if it’s a hypothesis rather than the ground of her action, that action itself must turn into a question mark.

For a good part of the time I was watching the film, I was trying to understand my sense of déjà vu, of displacement, my feeling that this wasn’t Shanghai and Hong Kong but somewhere else. The time was right, and the props and the costumes and the make-up: World War Two, old cars, belted raincoats, cloche hats, beautiful people pretending to be harrowed people. Then I got it. This was France under the Occupation, the transposed location that of a film by Louis Malle or Bertrand Tavernier, say, which in turn is not a place but an allegorical landscape, a zone of the imagination where issues of conscience, of collaboration and resistance, are permanently staged. And where, Lust, Caution suggests, there may be no escape from the scene, no return to whatever world there was before the movie took over.

Michael Wood

[*] Lust, Caution: The Story, the Screenplay and the Making of the Film (Pantheon, $22.95).