Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, 2007)
Mandarin Title: Se, Jie
Ang Lee's Lust, Caution is such a handsome, handsome film. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who also shot Lee's Brokeback Mountain (2005) turning the cold wilderness of cowboy country into the perfect getaway for the homosexual lovers, likewise turned Shanghai under Japanese occupation, complete with the visually depicted sufferings and with its streets littered with corpses who were either shot in the head by trigger-happy Japanese soldiers or just passed on to the next world from sheer starvation, into the perfect locale for political and romantic intrigue between a spy Wang (Wei Tang) and her target Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), a high ranking officer of the government established by the collaborators.
The film is so handsomely shot that even the explicit sex scenes, which begin only halfway through the film, have a particular quality of politeness or courtesy. True, the choreographed bed scenes are at times violent even bordering on morbid (especially the first time Yee succeeds in having his way on Wang; he rips her dress off and forces himself into her without a trace of compassion) but you can sense that Lee insists on grace, form and passable pressure when there should be boundless tension and callous power struggles between his two sexual beings. In other words, Lee is merely an inch away from being truly uncompromising, but decided to stay within the boundaries of good taste and propriety.
The many sexual positions, at times shocking, where both Lee's actors are drenched in lustful sweat, their limbs entangled with each other, and every bit of their bodily hairs and private parts are exposed to the watchful gazes of the audience are all too artful and passionate to be completely effective, at least in depicting the inevitable descent of the two individuals into the uncharted territory of emotional complexity.
Lee is a director who is always available for compromise (quite frustratingly so), and is always very polite in his films (even the gay cowboy movie, which was so overwhelmingly praised by almost everyone, is too cordial and civil to create an authentic altering stir). There seems to be no room for indecency in Lee's cinematic vocabulary, making Lust, Caution, despite its steamy bed scenes that somehow feel afraid to border chaotic or brazen, a step forward for the director.
Lee's gaze is unfortunately asexual. He operates as a passive observer, unflinching when a man is murdered by several stabbings, unsatisfyingly disinterested when Wang is deflowered for an unpracticed cause. Unlike Catherine Breillat, who in her several films (Romance (1999) and Anatomy of Hell (2004)) has mastered a female approach to sex, or Russ Meyer (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)), Tinto Brass (Salon Kitty (1976)), or even Lars Von Trier (Breaking the Waves (1996)), filmmakers (not necessarily effective ones) whose kinky and sometimes longing approaches to sex offer uniquely masculine perspectives, Lee's use of sex is merely perfunctory (but still seductively beautiful). He is exact and direct in his measurements, disappointingly afraid to be gratuitous or pornographic. Judge me now, but I wanted more.
Sex, which comprises around ten minutes of the lengthy running time, is central to the film. The true conversation piece of Lust, Caution, far more important than the loud gossipy discussions about husbands' politics and contraband over several games of mahjong and the whispered yet inutile plans of assassinating important Japanese collaborators, is spoken amidst the choked moans and the staggered breathing. Both victim and victimizer become vulnerable to the hazards of their repressed and tortured hearts, finding solace from their respective real life roles in the heat of their combined bodies. In a city corroded by war and intrigue, solace is indeed attractive if not tempting, that even the most hardened of individuals welcome the safety of such comfort, forever blurring the lines that separate right and wrong, loyalty and disgrace, love and lust.