Spy 100, #38: Lust, Caution

September 16, 2011

Now here’s a movie I was not looking forward to re-watching. I saw director Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007) in the theater when it came out, and I found it profoundly disappointing. Not because it’s a horrible movie, but because it’s a lush, attractively shot, engagingly structured espionage film…with a soul-crushing ending that obliterates all that comes before it. On a second viewing, the effect is mitigated somewhat by knowing what’s coming, but even so it’s a painful experience.

In 1938, Wong Chia-chei (Tang Wei) is a student in Hong Kong who hooks up with an amateur drama group, which produces patriotic plays supporting China’s resistance to the Japanese invasion. An inexperienced actress, she turns out to be a natural, and becomes the go-to performer when the group’s leader Kuang (Leehom Wang) decides to escalate their patriotism to a dangerous new level. The plan: to assassinate the cold-hearted Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), a Chinese official collaborating with the deplorable Japanese occupiers. In order to isolate Yee for the kill, Chia-chei poses as “Mrs. Mak,” and insinuates herself into the social circle of Yee’s wife (Joan Chen) in the hopes of getting close enough to tempt him into an affair. The group’s elaborate Big Store con nearly succeeds, but an unexpected glitch delays the honey trap by two years, when Chia-chei’s seduction finally bears fruit in Shanghai. Yee’s paranoid caution, however, extends the torrid, clandestine affair far beyond her breaking point, tragically confusing her mission.

The film isn’t without considerable good qualities: it’s a lavish production, the period is convincingly recreated, the stakes escalate engrossingly. The early stages of the film, when the idealistic rebels concoct and execute their risky plan, is compelling stuff. Tang Wei gives a gripping and courageous central performance in a challenging role. Much of the film has the feel of a classic Hitchcock movie, from its Notorious-like set-up, to its awkward murder right out of Torn Curtain. But, fatally, the story hinges on the romance between Chia-chei and Yee, and I just didn’t see it. The sex scenes are explicit, but there’s no real chemistry between them as people, no credible emotional connection. In fact, Yee is utterly unsympathetic: a political sell-out who enjoys torturing people to maintain a place of power in a puppet government, an adulterer who rapes his mistress. And we’re led to believe that our idealistic protagonist falls for him, for real? It just doesn’t work, and it makes her decisions unbelievable, not to mention depressing.

It’s a heart-wrenching and suspenseful film that builds to an infuriatingly unsatisfying apocalypse of an ending; the destination just doesn’t justify the journey. The spy genre is well known for its dark turns, but the message here reaches a new low, bleaker than bleak.

  • Jamaica Knauer September 17, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    Wow, you gotta be kidding me! “Lust, Caution” is one of the best films I’ve seen in years. It’s certainly among the very best of Ang Lee’s work, and among the most exciting, challenging work of Tony Leung Chiu Wai’s. As a Westerner, I’ve been extremely disappointed by the luke-warm response by my fellow Westerners. To me, it just seems like most Westerners just don’t “get it.” How could anyone think there was no connection between Tang Wei’s character and Tony Leung’s character? They were extraordinary, and very touching together. The second sex scene in the film is absolutely devastating. I found myself crying, to see the soul of the man Mr. Yee used to be, laid bare and vulnerable, before this young woman, who seemed to represent something still true and decent on the world, despite their shady circumstances. I do agree with you that Tang Wei was absolutely incredible; certainly one of the most layered, and accomplished debut performances I’ve ever seen, but I can only hope she, and the magnificent Tony Leung, work together again.

    • Chris East September 17, 2011 at 6:27 pm

      I had a feeling this movie would have its avid supporters! I respect your opinion, and I have to admit my review isn’t entirely clear on one point: I think the characters *do* have chemistry. But to me it was primarily a physical/sexual chemistry, rather than an emotional one — and, in my view, it seemed divorced from their personalities outside the relationship. I just couldn’t get past how much I disliked Mr. Yee — in general, but especially after the rape scene. I liked Tang Wei’s character too much to see her fall under the spell of such a cad, so the ending seemed particularly cruel. (Definitely agree I’d like to see both actors again.)

      I really wanted to love this movie as much as much as you did — and certainly there are lots of great things about the film. But ultimately our interpretations differ. Thanks for taking the time to comment, though!

  • Jamaica Knauer September 17, 2011 at 8:27 pm

    Hey, at least you watched it! Lol!

    You know, I HATED Mr. Yee after the rape scene, (particularly as a woman), but it’s to Tony Leung’s credit, as one incredibly talented actor, that he actually made me care about him, after that. He made me see how much Mr. Yee’s cruel actions were borne out of self-loathing. This guy wasn’t born a sadistic bastard, he was created out naive idealism, perverted by ambition, and then ultimately held hostage by his own mistake of becoming a collaborator. Both of those characters were so damaged, they could only fit with each other. I think both of them were absolutely heartbreaking characters, and their bond, which could’ve saved them both, ended up being a terrible tragedy.

  • Jamaica Knauer September 17, 2011 at 9:01 pm

    Forgot to point out, also, that Chia-chei is drawn to Mr. Yee, because he shows such great interest in her. Upon their first meeting, she sees that he listens to what she has to say, with genuine interest, and really LOOKS at her. That may not seem like much, but remember, this is a girl who was left behind in China, by her father, who chose to take along her younger brother to safety in England, telling her that he’d send for her later. Instead of sending for her, though, he uses his money to marry a British woman. He has done nothing to assure his daughter that she has any worth. Later, the young man she loves, is too wrapped up in his revolution, and shyness, to claim her heart, which she is obviously offering to him; and then she is further betrayed by him, and all her collaborator friends when they determine (without her) who will take her virginity, so that her cover as a married woman, will be protected, once her affair with Yee begins.

    If you ask me, Yee isn’t much worse than what she has already encountered in her life. All she can see is a dynamic older man, who seems to enjoy being around her, when her father couldn’t care less; a man who will do whatever he can to have her, even though he is married, when Kuang can’t even gather the guts to ask her out on a date. She is starving, not just for love and affection, but for affirmation as a person. Mr. Yee’s attention to her, gives her that, and his need for her makes her feel powerful, and important, for the first time in her life. This film is so rich, as are the performances – so much hinted at, that leaves my imagination to wander and wonder!

    • Chris East September 20, 2011 at 11:37 pm

      I have to admit, you give the film a spirited defense! And everything you’re describing is in the film — makes me wonder how much a mindset going in can affect an interpretation!