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What's the big deal?
Lust, Caution is a period spy drama film released in 2007 and is based on the 1979 novella of the same name by Eileen Chang. Directed by Ang Lee in his last Mandarin film to date, the film depicts a young woman from Shanghai recruited into the Chinese resistance against Japanese occupation during the Second World War and tasked with assassinating a high-ranking official. The film stars Tang Wei in her cinematic debut, Tony Leung, Joan Chen and Wang Leehom. The film generated a huge level of controversy when it was released, partly due to the graphic sexual scenes in the film and also in part to the censorship of the film in China and other territories. Despite the controversy, the film was a hit with critics who praised the film's setting, story and the performances of the cast. However, the heavy restrictions and age-ratings placed on the film limited its box office potential to just $67.1 million worldwide although distributors Focus Features were said to be pleased with this amount.
What's it about?
In 1938, shy university student Wong Chia Chi travels from her native Shanghai to the island of Hong Kong which is currently under the occupation of the Japanese due to the ongoing conflict between them and China. After enrolling at Lingnan University, Chia Chi meets male student Kuang Yu Min and the pair of them act in Kuang's drama club which stages patriotic plays to inspire the local Chinese population. Chia Chi becomes its leading lady due to Kuang's feelings for her and he soon decides on an ambitious project to contribute to the war effort in more concrete ways. Together with the rest of the drama group, he plans to assassinate a Chinese collaborator, Mr Yee, and tasks Chia Chi to go undercover as a glamorous socialite in your classic 'honey trap' plot. However, things go wrong and Mr Yee escapes unharmed although the group is forced to disband.
A few years later, Chia Chi is back in Shanghai and soon discovers that Yee has now been promoted to head of the Japanese secret police there. Reuniting with Kuang, who has now become a member of the underground resistance movement, they decide to try again. Chia Chi resumes her role as "Mrs Mai" and once again integrates within Yee's social circle. But this time, Yee is more receptive to her advances which brings up some brutal and unexpected consequences...
What's to like?
Anyone familiar with Ang Lee's work will know that he is an extraordinary director with an exquisite attention to detail. Lust, Caution is a beautiful film to watch, evocative of the period with wonderful costumes and sets. The soundtrack is also first class, full of mournful cellos that underscore the tragedy at the heart of the film. But above all else are the performances of the cast, each one delivering a portrayal of a character worthy of this gripping story. Wang Leehom, who is better known for his musical career, is sensational as Kuang who finds himself torn between his doomed love for Chia Chi and his love for his country. But it's the two leads, Tang Wei and Tony Leung, who own this film as they generate some serious chemistry on screen.
Wei, in her debut performance, is electric as Chia Chi who undergoes a superb transformation from naïve ingenue to a determined killer - all at the hands of other people. She is moulded into something she isn't in her heart which makes the tragedy of the story all the more affecting. By contrast, Leung is almost inscrutable as the villainous Yee. He gives nothing away until a key scene in the film when he lets his mask slip and becomes a vile monster. The much-discussed sex scenes in the film are astonishingly brave and if anything, feel at odds with the film's less-than-urgent pacing and dramatic impetus. And even here, it's more about story-telling than simple titillation - each one illustrates the slight changes in Tang Wei's character and Leung's as well, for that matter. I also loved the narrative although it is very similar in theme to a Paul Verhoeven film released a few years earlier, Black Book. Regardless, Ang Lee's sumptuous production is great to watch and heartbreaking to follow and it's not difficult to imagine such tales being commonplace in times of war.
- The film's unsimulated sex scenes caused a firestorm of controversy in China when it was released, causing the authorities to make multiple cuts to the film and even blacklisting Tang Wei for a number of years, preventing her from working or even appearing in publicity for the film. Leung, who escaped such censure despite appearing with Wei in the sex scenes, and Lee defended and supported her during this time. She wouldn't appear in a film again until 2010.
- The film's title is actually a pun and has a double meaning. In Chinese, the film's title can be read as 色 (sè) 戒 (jiè) which means 'coloured ring' - referring to an item in the film with huge significance.
- Ang Lee described filming the sex scenes as more difficult than the famous fight scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. They were filmed over eleven half-days with only the camera and sound crew on set and Tang Wei is said to have fainted at one point.
- Eileen Chang's original novella was published in 1979 but wasn't made available in English until 2007 when the film was released. Chang apparently began working on the story as early as the 1950s and none of the sex scenes in the film appear in the book.
What's not to like?
It's perhaps fair to say that Lust, Caution is made with a more Asian audience in mind. It's telling that Lee, who still had the acclaim for his award-hungry Brokeback Mountain ringing in his ears at this time, decided to return to his native Taiwan for this project which would have far more resonance for a Chinese audience. However, as a non-Chinese viewer, I confess to being more ignorant of the setting and context but this is a fault with me and not the film. What I didn't like was the fact that the film does go on for too long and sadly, doesn't feature that many characters to keep things flowing as they should. Other than the two leads, the ever-reliable Joan Chen and the aforementioned Wang Leehom, there aren't many other cast members that make much of an impression.
Other than some fairly notable anachronisms, there isn't much to dislike about the film. Obviously, the film is better in its native language so subtitle strugglers will have to make do with a dubbed version but for me, the film is a great period drama with palpable tension throughout and a passionate but doomed love affair. In a way, it's a shame that the film was ultimately overshadowed by its controversy as the film is often overlooked when discussing Ang Lee's career. While it isn't held in as high a regard as films like Brokeback and Life Of Pi, I would argue that it should be. Like many of Lee's films, this is an intelligent and engaging drama for adults that deserves respect and attention. This is so much more than just a handful of graphic love scenes.
Should I watch it?
Lust, Caution is a powerful and well-produced picture, offering a bleak tragedy that no doubt attempts to make an allegory to Asian audiences. Ignore the naysayers and censors who will have you believe this is little more than a glorified porn - the film is great to watch, well performed and gripping throughout. I just wish it was a little bit shorter and slightly pacier but other than these minor gripes, there is very little reason why any viewer should feel short-changed. For me, this is right up there with Ang Lee's very best work.
Great For: Asian audiences, anyone looking for a decent drama, internet perverts, going under the radar
Not So Great For: Tang Wei's career, anyone ignorant of the Sino-Japanese conflict, anyone who listened to those who criticised the film without watching it first
What else should I watch?
Ang Lee has enjoyed one heck of a career since his breakout film Eat Drink Man Woman in 1994. His first Hollywood, a lavish adaptation of Sense And Sensibility, scooped up dozens of award nominations as well as securing Emma Thompson an Oscar for the film's screenplay - making her the only star to win Academy Awards for acting and writing to date. The film is still regarded as one of the best big-screen adaptations of Jane Austen's work and helped lead to a resurgence of costume dramas in the 1990s. Lee's follow-up, The Ice Storm, was a very different affair depicting the complications arising from changing social norms in the early Seventies and abuse of drink, drugs and sex. It didn't make as much as Sense And Sensibility but still won over critics thanks to its amazing ensemble cast.
If anything, Lee tends to stick to more niche efforts which is wise as whenever he goes mainstream, things tend to go wrong. Hulk was much maligned by fans of the character, released a few years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe was founded although I'd rather watch this than the quickly-forgotten The Incredible Hulk which replaced Eric Bana with a thoroughly disinterested Edward Norton. And Lee's most recent film, the 2019 sci-fi action flick Gemini Man, was a horrible failure at the box office despite having Will Smith attempt to fend off an assassination attempt from a younger Will Smith. Lee's next project is a dramatization of the legendary 'Thriller In Manilla' boxing match between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali although there's no word yet on when it's ready for release.
Wong Chia Chi
Tony Leung Chiu-Wai
Kuang Yu Min
Assistant Officer Tsao
James Schamus & Hui-Ling Wang*
Release Date (UK)
4th January, 2008
Drama, History, Romance
© 2022 Benjamin Cox