Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

Similar to Paul Verhoven’s ‘Black Book’ we have Chinese master director Ang Lee’s very controversial ‘Lust, Caution’. These films are similar in that they both take place during World War II and feature very strong, very brave women who ‘do what they gotta do’ to try to help the greater good of the cause at hand. The films also have in common the fact they are both outstanding cinematic dramas.

During the Japanese occupation of China during World War II, the brutality of which probably gets glossed over a bit in the annals of history, overshadowed by the Nazi genocide against the Jews, we are introduced to a crew of young idealistic Chinese college students let by the charismatic Kuang Yu Min (Lee Hom Wang) who is a drama student and hopes to put on plays to wake up his fellow countrymen in Hong Kong to what’s going on around them. While recruiting for his play he asks the very pretty and very shy Wong Chi (Wei Tang) if she would like to participate, and though she’s never acted before we see early on that she has a crush on the handsome young man and agrees, and to every ones surprise she is amazingly good.

How in the world putting on a school play metamorphoses into political assassination beats the hell out of me, but Kuang Yu gets information on a high ranking Chinese minister who we will come to know as Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) who works directly for the Japanese oppressors uprooting Chinese spies, brutally interrogating them and subsequently executing them. Our inexperienced crew of drama students have a plan where they would set up Wong Chi as a the wife of an importer named Mrs. Mak, get real close and chummy with Mr. Yee’s wife (Joan Chen), subsequently get real close and personal Mr. Yee and then lure him into the trap and then bust some caps in his dome. Easy enough I suppose but the plan doesn’t quite materialize which leads to the crew parting ways amidst disappointment, disillusionment and lost innocence.

A few years later a much better organized Kuang Yu tracks down Wong Chi.  Kuang asks Wong Chi to reprise her role as Mrs. Mak, which she agrees to do, and eventually enters into a rather brutal sexual relationship with the violent Mr. Yee, with the situation not being helped by her ‘allies’ who are very hesitant in pulling the trigger and ending her charade. As time goes on and the relationship becomes more intense, things become more come complicated and the lines become completely blurred leading to dubious decisions with dire consequences for all involved.

There is nothing ‘easy’ about ‘Lust, Caution’ as Lee, working from an adapted script by James Schamus, directs characters who are living during a very difficult time, who are very complex and take actions that seriously cause one to sit back and think about what they have done. What follows are SPOILERS and will give away much of the plot of ‘Lust, Caution’ so please stop reading now. One question is why didn’t Kuang Yu volunteer himself to deflower Wong Chi as her being virgin wife would have blown their plan? I hate to be lewd because this film probably should require me to put my usual crudeness to the side, but I’m afraid as leader of the gang that’s a duty that’s falling squarely to me. No joke. In all seriousness though, since they both had obvious feelings for each other perhaps he felt she needed to get in the habit of having disconnected sex, as opposed to the emotional sex she would be having if Kuang Yu had chosen himself instead of another member of the team for the task. At least that was the plan. Another question that arises is Mr. Yee’s feelings towards Mrs. Mak. Was he falling in love with her? Especially considering he seemed incapable of any real feelings. He certainly used sex as a weapon but over a period of time he allowed her to have more control in the sex act perhaps chipping away at the bitterness and evil that pretty much consumed him. This leads us the controversy in that the sex scenes were some of the most graphic filmed in a mainstream movie, even causing one to question whether or not they were even simulated, though their importance to the narrative is completely understandable. Note, if I die without ever seeing Tony Leung’s nutsack again, I’m good. Finally and most curiously why did Wong Chi try to save her oppressor, though I challenge she didn’t have to save him from anything since it appeared to me that the supposed hit was called off at the last minute. Probably because Wong Chi was ill suited for the task in the first place, perhaps because even brutal affection is still affection, considering it’s the only attention or intimacy one is receiving, and probably because as she said herself that Mr. Yee, despite his brutality, is showing her more kindness and understanding than her own legion of so-called revolutionaries.

Actress Wei Tang was phenomenal in this film, considering what she to go though during the filming and the long term personal repercussions of her work in this movie potentially has on her career. However I do hope her career is only beginning and not coming to some short sighted end. Comparing ‘Lust, Caution’ to ‘Black Book’ is legitimate but ‘Black Book’ was more sensational in its presentation and actually more sordid despite the more graphic sex scenes in Lee’s movie. Both films however feature two of the best and probably most difficult performances that you will likely see from a pair of actresses in some time, and both films deserve to be seen.

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