In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

At the MoviesMichael Wood
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
Vol. 30 No. 2 · 24 January 2008
At the Movies

‘Lust, Caution’

Michael Wood

Lust, Caution 
directed by Ang Lee.
October 2007
Show More
Show More

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

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.