A Lesson in Aeronautics in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007) November 5, 2007Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Literature.
Original Title: Se, Jie
Directed by Ang Lee
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Tang Wei, Lee-Hom Wang, Joan Chen
Based on Eileen Chang’s short story
Winner of 2007 Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion
To think that his name consists only of six letters — five to be exact — Ang Lee has now placed his signature, above all the rest and no matter how uneven, in the blazing pages of auteur cinema. After Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (arguably the most popular Chinese film of all time), Brokeback Mountain (an essential work in the western genre), and several Hollywood productions in between, Lee is back, fiery and sumptuous, bringing home his second Golden Lion in three years, with an espionage thriller that surfaces with razor-sharp mastery, filmed exquisitely by Rodrigo Prieto in such splendor reminiscent of a golden age.
The mahjong scenes that set the pace of Lust, Caution at the beginning are defiantly crucial: without the intrinsic atmosphere of boredom that one gets while coping with the deliberate camera movement and fast-changing subtitles, the emotional upheaval that builds from fury to lust would have been less striking. Likewise, the war seems not to be taking place and every detail shown to intensify its presence makes it feel less threatening, transitory, and to put it more precisely: the war is taking place elsewhere but not in Shanghai. This dreamlike supposition, which of course would be opposed by anyone basing it on history, is singularly impressive, as most films that relate to war would use this backdrop to heighten, or in some cases lengthen, their narratives to create an evil justified by blood and ammunitions.
The explicit sexual intercourse — a fantastic series of acrobatics, an Olympic display of arduous but definitely pleasurable calisthenics, the closest reach to seventh heaven — is the most integral part of the film. The controversy that arises from it is purely expected, at least we realize we’re still in this world, but the impact it creates, as if it’s not the first time we see pubic hairs, erect nipples, moans, lip-biting, silent orgasms, and vehement to and fro pelvic exercises, is phenomenal. Catherine Breillat’s, Gaspar Noé’s, Michael Winterbottom’s, and several films that feature unsimulated sex are mostly European, with the possible exception of the most notorious of them all: Nagisa Oshima’s In The Realm of the Senses. Of course this assertion demands further analysis but somehow it is conclusive that Europeans are more inclined — and more liberated — to film sex than Asians. But the difference, the very unmistakable difference, is the way they are staged — admit it, the sensuality in Lust, Caution is felt a thousand-fold more than Romance or Rape Me — the reason why it will attain a status of classic vulnerability that other films never take into consideration.
Tang Wei is alluring: her nipples having a rare standing ovation, her beautiful forest of armpit hairs, her childlike sensuality, her eyes that roll with fear, her pubis that moves seamlessly — everything about her radiates with passion she resembles an engine working perfectly, running the longest mile around the suburbs of desire and lust. She is an epitome of sinful simplicity, a lost kite of trapped loneliness falling relentlessly.
Lust, Caution is apolitical. Contrary to Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige’s conscious aversion (at least during their early years, and the fairest of their collaborations is Chen’s Yellow Earth, shot in immense austerity by Zhang) and Wong Kar-wai’s political apathy, Lee stands in between, which contributes to the apparent mainstream appeal of his works. As Chinese history has the most diverse account of politics — everything about it — in the world, and its people that seem to co-exist with their past, it is rather difficult to film emotions that harbor not in history but in humanity itself — a feat that Lust, Caution delivers.
Tony Leung looks older in age but not in talent. His stone face, his intergalactic stare, his elegiac gestures — he embodies a Martian for reasons I still cannot decipher. When he mentions that If you pay attention, nothing is trivial, he glows with vigor, a bursting mix of vibrance and suave that can only come from an icon, and he surely is.
Must be the sheer popularity — particularly to Western audience — Lee reminds me of Akira Kurosawa during his glorious years of immense recognition. In this light, I would like to express an analogy that only fools like myself would believe: almost ten years after completing his Rashomon, Ang Lee, now, in a stunning piece of work, presents his Seven Samurai, bustling, running, in an aeronautic battle. If you are still wondering what that mysterious closure of Days of Being Wild means, with Tony Leung combing his vaselined hair in his usual gesture, preparing himself for a night out, then think no further. This is where he goes — with Wong Chia Chi — to spend a feisty evening, in rage. * * * * *