Sleep­ing with the en­emy

David Stratton

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music -

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

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