Saturday, October 27, 2007

Lust, Caution (2007)

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.


Shinji Manlangit said...

I fell in love with Tony Leung in this one (in a totally non-gay manner, even though i saw his balls for like, 5 seconds).

That last scene where he went inside Wang's empty room. Wow man. Naiyak ako dun. Haha!

And I cannot fucking believe that this is Tang Wei's first film. She was so good, man.

Oggs Cruz said...

Prime example of MTRCB hypocrisy actually... They allow this with all the erect nipples and scrotum exposure, but they disallow a documentary on Erap and human rights violations in the country. To make it clear, the showing of this movie uncut is not a step up for the antiquated censors board, it just proves its inutility.

As for the movie, I like it enough to recommend, but I won't consider it great... better than Brokeback Mountain or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for sure. Lee's best film is still The Ice Storm, not as much exposure but naughtier, much naughtier, than this.

Again, it's a great performance for Leung (but nothing tops Happy, Together) and as for Tang Wei, it's a pretty formidable performance and for her, never upstaged by Leung.

Lilit Reyes said...

I agree, I saw much but I was still yearning for more. This good film could have become great.

My observations at:

Blog post is "All-Out Sex in Shanghai."

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks Lilit,

The film needs more sex, and less postcards. At least Wong consistently lit the screen with guarded eroticism (and when he does portray sex e.g. Happy Together, or that horse scene in Ashes of Time, it's truly naughty without having to show the nasty bits). Ang Lee needs to forget good taste when he's making films such as these; he's too restrained; too mindful that he's an Academy Award winning director.

Shinji said...

I agree. I also wanted to see more of Tang Wei (and her erected nipples.) Even though I was so disturbed at the sight of Tony Leung licking Tang Wei's hairy armpits.

Oggs Cruz said...

Hairy armpits... ooh lala.

Shinji said...

Uggh, seriously it was disturbing. Hahaha!

Oggs Cruz said...

Isn't it nice that we were born in an era wherein hair removal waxes, shaving cream, and razors are available in the nearest mini-mart, and women have the better sense to know that armpits with hair is totally unsexy.

shinji said...

Amen to you, my brother!

selluloid said...


if ang lee directed the erap documentary, i guess they would have screened it without cuts. GP pa. and make it the philippines' entry to the oscar's.

medyo corny ung ending. but the shot of the ring shaking on the table was great.

Pierre said...

Hi all, this is Pierre from Belgium (Europe). Lust Caution is out since january in european theaters, so I couldn't comment it before. My mother tongue is French, so be cool with my basic English.
Oggs Cruz said
«and women have the better sense to know that armpits with hair is totally unsexy.»

Well, this is your point of view but why should it be the truth ? For me, women without body hair are childish and totally unsexy, especially without pubic and armpit hair. And I can tell you that a lot of men agree with me. You don't know what you are missing because touching, kissing and smelling armpit hair (like Tony Leung in the movie) is very erotic for the two partners as the armpit is an erogenous area.

In Western countries, female body hair (FBH) was erotic as described in a lot of books written in 1700 and 1800 but taboo in the mean time, it was forbidden to display it on statues and on pictures, it's only since ±1860 that a painter has showed a woman with pubic hair visible. Then, movie industry began circa 1896 and the MPPDA, a puritan censor group from Hollywood, explicitly mentionned it was forbidden to show FBH in movies, because it was too erotic and a woman should be equal to a man if she sports hairy armpits, as Aristophanes already described 400 years BC in "Lysistrata". This is the reason why there are almost no movies showing FBH. Even "historical" movies, supposed to describe human life in the Middle Age show shaved women, which is as anachronistic as if they had a cellular phone ! During centuries, only rich people shave, while 95% of the population was starving. So Ang Lee shows us the reality of China during WW2 and even now, a lot of Chinese and Indian women do not shave but hide armpit hair (the sari) because it's too "hot" for men.

I have spoken with hundred of women worldwide about FBH and I was amazed to hear that 50% of them only shave because of peer pressure ! They don't want to suffer, to waste time and money but can't stand unkind remarks.

I don't ask that women stop shaving but that women who choose not to shave would be left alone. FBH is a sign of sexual maturity. For me, a woman without FBH is like a woman without breast or head hair, she misses a part of her femininity. And share fantasy with paedophils (a hairless body) is for me a total turnoff.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thank you for that most interesting comment,

I'm never implied that what I think for women as better sense is gospel truth, it's just a perspective I've come to enjoy and live with, but if body hair on women turns you on, by all means, indulge. Lest I get that sudden urge for the primal, I'll stay true to my urge for the smooth and hairless.

Anonymous said...

I also think that female body hair is sexy. And also, I bet that Chinese girls have not shaved before 1990s, at least a half of them do not shave even now.

Anonymous said...

I also think that armpit hair is very sexy, and I am sorry for an empty place in your perception of beauty.