Sleeping with the enemy
TAIWANESE- BORN Ang Lee is among the most versatile film directors working today. A quick check of the 10 films he has directed over the past 15 years will confirm this. He has tackled the world of Jane Austen ( Sense and Sensibility ); the martial arts action spectacle of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ; the brittle examination of repressed sexuality in The Ice Storm ; the US Civil War ( Ride with the Devil ); a couple of small- scale, bitter comedies peopled by Chinese characters ( The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman); and he has even given us the spectacular adventures of an American superhero ( Hulk ).
After the infinitely sad lives of a couple of cowboys who can’t acknowledge their love for one another ( Brokeback Mountain ), he now explores the intricate plotting of Chinese patriots during World War II in his new film, the 2007 Venice Golden Lion winner Lust, Caution .
On reflection, several of these films deal with relationships that are forbidden for moral or political reasons, or are in other ways doomed.
The unforgettable final scene in Brokeback Mountain , in which the Heath Ledger character realises how much he meant to his now dead friend, has its parallel in the new film and is just as memorable, though handled very differently.
Lust, Caution , which is based on a short story by Eileen Chang adapted for the screen by Wang Hui- ling and James Schamus, unfolds in Hong Kong and Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. In essence the story is quite similar to that of Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book , in which a Jewish woman joins the Resistance, is assigned to get close to a senior German officer, and finds herself falling in love with him.
Lee’s treatment is poles apart from Verhoeven’s cheerfully action- packed approach, but the cores of the stories are so close that it comes as no surprise to learn that Verhoeven was a member of the international jury that awarded Lee the prize in Venice.
The film begins with an enigmatic scene set in Shanghai in 1942. In an overfurnished room, four women are gossiping and playing mahjong; among them are Mrs Yee ( Joan Chen), the wife of the head of the Chinese secret service that is collaborating with the Japanese occupying forces, and Mrs Mak ( Tang Wei), a younger woman who isn’t who she seems to be. When Mr Yee ( Tony Leung) quietly enters the room and surveys the quartet, an unspoken message passes between him and Mrs Mak; a rendezvous has been arranged. Later that afternoon, Mrs Mak makes an enigmatic phone call to her ‘‘ little brother’’’, who is one of the leaders of a group of partisans. ‘‘ It’s now,’’ he tells his followers.
Flashback to Hong Kong, four years earlier. The character introduced as Mrs Mak is in reality Wong Chia- chi, a girl from the countryside. Her mother is dead; her father has taken her brother and gone to live in England, where he has re married. Left alone to fend for herself, Wong becomes a student at the university and befriends members of a left- wing drama group, attracted to its leader, Kuang Yu- min ( Wang Lee- hom).
Her success as an actor is followed by her recruitment into a resistance group led by Kuang who has decided, quite independently of any higher authority, to assassinate Yee, who at the time is based in Hong Kong. As a crucial part of the plot, Wong is transformed into the elegant, married, Mrs Mak, with a ( fictitious) husband in import- export who is never around.
The plan is for her to get close to Mrs Yee and, through her, to the closely- guarded Mr Yee. Anticipating her imminent seduction by the latter, the virginal Wong allows herself to be taught about sex not by the handsome Kuang, as she would have preferred, but by a less prepossessing member of the group whose experience is derived from dealings with prostitutes; after a while, she gets the hang of it. But just as it seems as though the scheme will succeed, the Yees are posted to Shanghai and the plot, after the grisly murder of one of Yee’s agents who has become suspicious of the group, is abandoned.
Four years later in Shanghai, where Wong has been living in poverty before a chance encounter with her former comrades, the assassination plot is revived, and this time she succeeds in starting an affair with the lustful but extremely cautious Yee. Their first sexual encounter is brutal, but subsequent liaisons — powerfully and erotically handled in this R- rated movie — transform a casual affair into something far deeper.
Lee is a consummate filmmaker. He is, in a way, reminiscent of David Lean in terms of versatility and his attention to detail, in his ability to handle spectacular scenes adroitly but also achieve maximum effects from the most intimate moments. Some of the simplest scenes in Lust, Caution are the most powerful, such as the sequence in which Mrs Mak has taken Yee to a tailor for a fitting and has acquired a new dress which he insists she wear to dinner on their first date. In an English- style restaurant, the two of them talk while a pianist plays popular tunes in the background: the dialogue is simple enough, but the way in which the sequence is edited and framed, together with the pitch- perfect performances, give it extraordinary resonance.
Tony Leung, one of Hong Kong’s most popular actors, has never been better, but the revelation of the film is newcomer Tang as the shy, innocent girl overwhelmed by political and emotional events. The rest of the cast can’t be faulted either.
Adding to the success of the film is the exceptional work of Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who also photographed Brokeback Mountain as well as Babel , Amores Perros and 21 Grams . Impressive, too, is the evocative music score by French composer Alexandre Desplat, which may linger with you long after this beautiful, leisurely, sad, imposing film has concluded.
Politics and emotions: Lust, Caution has a forbidden relationship at its core