Lust/Caution

9 Nov

Director: Ang Lee (2007)

It has become something of a thing amongst my friends whereby they pertain that my predilection for art house and foreign cinema is in some way a vain attempt to disguise a similar attraction to, how do I say, the more risqué inclusions in film… While I usually reverently deny this, the more I think about my collection of foreign films, particularly those of the Latin American persuasion, the more I can’t help but notice there is certainly some thematic connections, namely all the sexy time. Now to clarify, perhaps with the exception of 9 Songs, I maintain that sex in such films is far less gratuitous that the stomach churningly awkward sex scenes we are subjected to in so many mainstream films and instead, with the right contextualisation, can become a valid (necessary?) addition to the plot… Yes this is a massive generalisation and by no means can be applied to all films of this ilk but I am determined to try and rationalise the fact that my love of foreign cinema does not mean I love all the porn… Because I don’t.

Ang Lee on the other hand…. I jest. Long before the days of man on man cowboy loving, Lust/Caution’s appearance in our cinema screens, even the trailer itself, had audiences getting hot under the collar and opened our eyes to the distinct eroticism of Chinese cinema. For me such eroticism was ignited when watching the fresh faced Tony Leung in Chungking Express, and so to see him now, older, wiser, rugged(er) as the despotic Mr Yee, was a treat in disguise.  Would he still have that effortless cool seduction that broke my heart in Wong Kar Wei’s early films? Answer – yes.

I am determined not to make this article into an ode to Mr Leung’s sexual appeal but for Lust/Caution it is almost necessary – and unavoidable! Based on a novella by Chinese writer Eileen Chang, Lust/Caution is set in Hong Kong in 1938 later jumping to Shanghai in 1942 during the Japanese occupation. A group of feisty Chinese university students, all friends from their amateur dramatic group, band together to form an alliance of renegades who develop a plot to assassinate a special agent and recruiter into the corrupt government by using a beautiful young girl to lure him – the ultimate honey trap. Unfortunately the brutal special agent with the target on his back is Mr Yee, the aforementioned beautiful brooding Tony Leung, therefore displacing any images of the kind hearted but downtrodden policeman from Chungking and so creating a strange dichotomy throughout the film.

I mean, how could you ever hate this man?? :

But bearing in mind the horrific history of this time during the Japanese occupation, we are indeed meant to hate Mr Yee, he is not a nice man, even when the plan is set in motion and the devastatingly beautiful Mai Tai Tai is sent in to seduce him, he is, well, a nasty piece of work, to avoid a cruder expression.

It’s here that Ang Lee’s film challenges our perceptions. The film is driven on tension, not just the political undertones that run throughout the film but also in that of the relationships between all the characters, not just those who are sleeping together. There is a certain reluctance but necessity behind the actions of the students – none seem to really want to be spies, but see no other choice as their country falls victim to the hands of the corrupt government. The strain this places on each of them is what carrier what is essentially a seen-it-before and relatively simple plot.

Ang Lee’s great epics, including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and perhaps his most mainstream, Brokeback Mountain, all have this in common – the notion that the real story to an event is in the relationships. And boy, does he know how to depict the human condition. Just as the couplings in Crouching Tiger took my breath away, so does the burgeoning relationship between Mr Yee and the (initially) naive Mai Tai Tai. Famed for its violent and adventurous sex scenes, it is a shame that Lust/Caution is now predominantly remembered for these moments as opposed to the passion that inspires such acrobatics. Yes, the sex scenes are unforgettable, there is no lying about it they are hot. Like take notes and try at home hot, but as a narrative tool (bear with me…) they work to help the audience experience that same climax that the characters reach, both in the bedroom and in their loving relationship, and thus drives us to experience the same heartbreak at the end of the film. We are there from their first meeting over a lovely game of Mah-jong to their first time alone together, in what is at once the most disturbing and disconcertingly arousing sex scene, to their limb quivering unions steaming over Mai Tai Tai’s real job – to lure Mr Yee to his death.

Tang Wei, the beautiful young actress who plays Mai Tai Tai is perfectly cast, continuing Ang Lee’s aptitude for choosing stunning leading ladies who can simultaneously play the most fragile and breakable young girls but underneath, there is a voracity and sensuality that just needs the right man to unleash it. Sex aside, Lust/Caution is a visually stunning film, filled with the glamour of the 1940s, there is a certain breathlessness to its appearance. Style and grace, both stalwarts in Chinese culture and certainly in the depiction of female characters in Chinese cinema, ooze through each frame, drawing you in. Coming in at over 2 ½ hours, there is no denying it is a long film, but spanning such a long period of time, this length allows Ang Lee to really develop the characters as they adapt to the stark political changes in their country and lives.

Apparently Ang Lee filmed over 100 hours of sex scenes for Lust/Caution, and while I may be a big advocate of a bit of blue in my films, I am rather glad he did a good edit for the final cut. Beautifully styled, well written and with electric chemistry between the two leads fuelled by an underlying atmosphere of fear and paranoia, Lust/Caution is a wonderful film presenting a fresh and uncliched take on the espionage thriller. Just maybe don’t watch it with your grandma.

It has become something of a thing amongst my friends whereby they pertain that my predilection for art house and foreign cinema is in some way a vain attempt to disguise a similar attraction to, how do I say, the more risqué inclusions in film… While I usually reverently deny this the more I think about my collection of foreign films, particularly those of the Latin American persuasion, the more I can’t help but notice there is certainly some thematic connections, namely all the sexy time. Now to clarify, perhaps with the exception of 9 Songs, I maintain that sex in such films is rarely gratuitous and through expert contextualisation and control, sex scenes in independent films can become a valid (necessary?) addition to the plot without transforming into a stomach churningly awkward scene like so many mainstream films… Yes this is a massive generalisation and by no means can be applied to all films of this ilk but I am determined to try and rationalise the fact that my love of foreign cinema does not mean I love all the porn… Because I don’t.

Ang Lee on the other hand…. I jest. Long before the days of man on man cowboy loving, Lust/Caution’s appearance in our cinema screens, even the trailer itself, had audiences getting hot under the collar and opened our eyes to the distinct eroticism of Chinese cinema. For me such eroticism was ignited when watching the fresh faced Tony Leung in Chungking Express, and so to see him now, older, wiser, rugged(er) as the despotic Mr Yee, was a treat in disguise.  Would he still have that effortless cool seduction that broke my heart in Wong Kar Wei’s early films? Answer – yes.

I am determined not to make this article into an ode to Mr Leung’s sexual appeal but for Lust/Caution it is almost necessary – and unavoidable! Based on a novella by Chinese writer Eileen Chang, Lust/Caution is set in Hong Kong in 1938 later jumping to Shanghai in 1942 during the Japanese occupation. A group of feisty Chinese university students, all friends from their amateur dramatic group, band together to form an alliance of renegades who develop a plot to assassinate a special agent and recruiter into the corrupt government by using a beautiful young girl to lure him – the ultimate honey trap. Unfortunately the brutal special agent with the target on his back is Mr Yee, the aforementioned beautiful brooding Tony Leung, therefore displacing any images of the kind hearted but downtrodden policeman from Chungking and so creating a strange dichotomy throughout the film. Bearing the horrific history of this time during the Japanese occupation, we are meant to hate Mr Yee, he is not a nice man, even when the plan is set in motion and the devastatingly beautiful Mai Tai Tai is sent in to seduce him, he is, well, a nasty piece of work, to avoid a cruder expression.

It’s here that Ang Lee’s film challenges our perceptions. The film is driven on tension, not just the political undertones that run throughout the film but also in that of the relationships between all the characters, not just those who are sleeping together. There is a certain reluctance but necessity behind the actions of the students – none seem to really want to be spies, but see no other choice as their country falls victim to the hands of the corrupt government. The strain this places on each of them is what carrier what is essentially a seen-it-before and relatively simple plot.

Ang Lee’s great epics, including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and perhaps his most mainstream, Brokeback Mountain, all have this in common – the notion that the real story to an event is in the relationships. And boy, does he know how to depict the human condition. Just as the couplings in Crouching Tiger took my breath away, so does the burgeoning relationship between Mr Yee and the (initially) naive Mai Tai Tai. Famed for its violent and adventurous sex scenes, it is a shame that Lust/Caution is now predominantly remembered for these moments as opposed to the passion that inspires such acrobatics. Yes, the sex scenes are unforgettable, there is no lying about it they are hot. Like take notes and try at home hot, but as a narrative tool (bear with me…) they work to help the audience experience that same climax that the characters reach, both in the bedroom and in their loving relationship, and thus drives us to experience the same heartbreak at the end of the film. We are there from their first meeting over a lovely game of Mah-jong to their first time alone together, in what is at once the most disturbing and disconcertingly arousing sex scene, to their limb quivering unions steaming over Mai Tai Tai’s real job – to lure Mr Yee to his death.

Tang Wei, the beautiful young actress who plays Mai Tai Tai is perfectly cast, continuing Ang Lee’s aptitude for choosing stunning leading ladies who can simultaneously play the most fragile and breakable young girls but underneath, there is a voracity and sensuality that just needs the right man to unleash it. Sex aside, Lust/Caution is a visually stunning film, filled with the glamour of the 1940s, there is a certain breathlessness to its appearance. Style and grace, both stalwarts in Chinese culture and certainly in the depiction of female characters in Chinese cinema, ooze through each frame, drawing you in. Coming in at over 2 ½ hours, there is no denying it is a long film, but spanning such a long period of time, this length allows Ang Lee to really develop the characters as they adapt to the stark political changes in their country and lives.

Apparently Ang Lee filmed over 100 hours of sex scenes for Lust/Caution, and while I may be a big advocate of a bit of blue in my films, I am rather glad he did a good edit for the final cut. Beautifully styled, well written and with electric chemistry between the two leads fuelled by an underlying atmosphere of fear and paranoia, Lust/Caution is a wonderful film presenting a fresh and uncliched take on the espionage thriller. Just maybe don’t watch it with your grandma.

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