Ang Lee's 2007 film "Lust, Caution" is gradually becoming one of my favorite films. Lee is a first-tier director, and his follow up to "Brokeback Mountain" unfortunately gathered far less publicity than it's predecessor. Part of the difficulty had to do with the silly NC-17 rating, as well as the fact that it actually requires some knowledge of 20th century history to appreciate. More importantly, however, "Brokeback" was a straightforward story of tragic romance despite the unusual genders of its lead characters. "Lust, Caution" is trickier, more complex. It's not as easy to sum up in a few words why we should care about "Lust", and since the movie takes about three hours to unfold that's a pretty important question.
It takes a lot of confidence to let a story that most studios would only greenlight for 90 minutes or so take twice as long, and Lee earns every minute of it. The film is a sumptuous elegy, its characters nostalgic not for what was, but what might have been. This sentiment could be killed by a speedy script, or an overly flashy director. Lee doesn't stun us with unconventional shots. Rather, almost every shot is a delicate postcard of a marvelous era that may or may not have existed. It shows a true love of China, and depicts a time of great change, just before the upheavals that would alter it forever.
The time and place in question would be Shanghai during the Japanese Occupation of WWII. Wong Chia-Chi is a semi-reluctant spy for the resistance, played by the luminous Tang Wei. Brought into the struggle partly out of a schoolgirl crush on a revolutionary upperclassman, and partly due to simple peer pressure, she soon finds herself out of her depth. Wong is forced to grow up very quickly when her objective becomes seduction. The target of their haphazard assassination plot is Mr Yee, a collaborator with the Japanese, and the sparks between the two of them are painfully clear. The plan becomes for her to seduce Yee, to distract him long enough for the rebels to kill him.
Unfortunately, the poorly-thought-through plan goes wrong (oh kids), and several years later, she finds herself again pressed into service. By now, Yee has risen to a very high position in charge of the interrogation of Chinese rebels. Despite Yee's healthy paranoia, he seems to have a blind spot for Miss Wong, and the rebels want to exploit this. Seducing him is not difficult. Quickly she is spirited away in his private cars to erotic rendevous. The sex is certainly eyebrow-raising, and at first quite rough. Yee's reserved exterior, carefully composed, falls away abruptly as he seems to take out decades of repressed living in one frightening encounter. "Love Story" this ain't.
As is Lee's tradition, he doesn't show any sex that he doesn't need to. Oh, he needs to show a lot, don't get me wrong. These people live their lives behind masks to such a degree that if we cut out the sex, we'd miss the bulk of their relationship. Only behind closed bedroom doors can they both drop the facades of their lives and communicate truthfully, even if their communication must be silent. Yee spends each day torturing and executing his countrymen, and their screams echo in his head day after day. He is forced to compose himself simply to stay sane. For her part, Wong may or may not love Mr Yee. She can't love a man who does the terrible things he does. But in another world, where they weren't enemies, and where the real Wong could be with the real Mr Yee, who knows what could have been? During their increasingly acrobatic sexual encounters, we see them flouting the restrictions and norms of their lives, shattering their masks temporarily by being completely uninhibited.
To Yee, Wong is more than yet another mistress. She can sense his sadness, and is able to soothe it, even more because she purposely avoids talking about his work or the war. The most touching scene is when Yee calls her to meet him in the Japanese district. Decked out like a terrible neon parody of Kyoto, it's full of Japanese officers smashed on sake teasing geisha girls. Yee is despondent, tired of the constant crooning of geisha girls, longing for the China of his childhood. Wong closes the door to their room, and sings a pure, beautiful Chinese folk song. Yee applauds, his stoic face on the verge of tears.
There is a climax to this story, a tragic one, as any fan of Chinese dramas would fully expect going in. But it isn't punched up for dramatic effect. It's astonishing how quickly it occurs, and how quickly it's over. Shanghai continues on as it did before, the war continuing much as it probably would had this plot never happened. The only people affected by it were those that it happened to. But nobody has the luxury of a big emotional speech or resolution. Life must go on, but behind everyone's eyes, you can see the beauty of the China they carry in their hearts, the life that might have been.