by Allan Fish
(Hong Kong/China/USA 2007 157m) DVD1/2
Aka. Se, jie
Appointment at Chandi Chowk Jewellers
p William Kong, Ang Lee d Ang Lee w James Schamus, Hui-Ling Wang story Eileen Chang ph Rodrigo Prieto ed Tim Squyres m Alexandre Desplat art Lai Pan cos Lai Pan
Tony Leung (Mr Yee), Wei Tang (Wong Chia Chi), Joan Chen (Mrs Yee), Wang Lee-Hom (Kuang Yu-Min), Tou Chung-Hua (Old Wu), Chu Chih-Ying (Lai Shu-Jin), Kao Ying-Hsien (Huang Lei), Ko Yue-Lin (Liang Jun Sheng), Su Yan (Ma Tai Tai), Yuen Johnson (Mr Mak),
On its release in the west, and especially in the US, Ang Lee’s film received what can only be described as faint praise. It was seen as too sedate, too cold in its narrative to the point of analytical, and, of course, there was the sex, that biggest of no-nos to middle-class WASP Americans. Needless to say, these same self-righteous bodies were waiting to tear to shreds any offering from that cursed director, who made the unholy film about gay love, Brokeback Mountain. Not only shameful but a crying shame, for Lust, Caution is a rare film indeed, and one of the best and most underrated films of its decade.
In Shanghai in 1942, a young woman, Wong, thinks back on the events that brought her to this moment, beginning in 1938, during the initial war between Japan and China just prior to World War II. Abandoned by her father who has escaped to England, she becomes involved in the political factions of her student body while becoming the leading lady of a drama troupe. Not long after, she is coerced by a local underground leader to play the leading role in a plot to assassinate one of the chief collaborators with the Japanese, Mr Yee. Wong at first reluctantly takes up the challenge, but when it requires her intimacy with Mr Yee, things take a turn to the dark side.
Like those other studies of dangerous erotic encounters, Last Tango in Paris and Ai No Corrida, this is a very dark film, both aesthetically and psychologically. Lee’s collaborators behind the screen conform to his exacting period vision, and it’s a period dominated – though that’s hardly the right word – by unassuming colours. The pallet thus set to muted, the slashes of real colour we are treated to thus seem all the more vibrant, like rays of sunshine into a darkened room, literally in the case where Wong, rising naked from bed after another sex lesson from one of her fellow students to get her ready for her part, opens the curtains and the sunlight floods the room and over her body. As for the sex, when it arrives, it’s undeniably erotic, contorting and emotionally and physically draining. For all the explicitness of the later sequences, however, it’s their first consummation, the least revealing, which is the most disturbing. It’s a raw, brutal, almost masochistic descent into bare-boned passion, and contrasts so diametrically with her earlier feelings on love, expressed succinctly in her sobbing at the doomed romance of Intermezzo at the cinema.
With his regular editor Squyres, eternal collaborator in writing James Schamus and new-found cinematographer of choice Prieto all around him, Lee’s film reeks of his earlier more celebrated outings, while Desplat’s score, understated and subliminal, is one of his very best. It encapsulates the double-layered trap that forms the heart of the film, both the trap into which Wong tries to ensnare Yee, and the eternal trap into which she falls and is thus doomed. The performances are all immaculate, with Leung delving deeper into the hint of controlled cruelty first seen in 2046, but here let out for all to see. He’s first seen in shades, and he remains metaphorically in them through the film, right up until the unforgettable final scene. At least his equal is the fabulous Tang, personally groomed by Lee as much as Wong is in the film, right down to his instructing her not to shave her body hair – both underarm and crotch – leading up to the shoot to maintain period accuracy. It may require a couple of viewings, and an adjustment to its pace, but make no bones about it, in years to come, it may be seen as Ang’s best film.