Caution: Automatic Lust

Monday, 29 October 2007 — 11:04pm | Film, Full reviews

Or, as they say in the London Underground: mind the gap.

Lust, Caution is now playing in select theatres. I had the opportunity to see it a few weeks ago at the Edmonton International Film Festival, and although my impressions of a film are never wholly reliable after only seeing it once, my initial judgment is that it is the very best film I’ve seen with Ang Lee in the director’s chair. Mind you, I’m far more familiar with his recent films than I am with his works in the early 1990s, but this is still a strong statement of praise on my part when you consider that I’m suggesting comparisons to the likes of Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—excellent films both, but not as consistently tight in pacing. Highly recommended.

Is it just me, or are we in the middle of a spy cinema renaissance? In the last two years alone, we’ve seen Munich, Casino Royale and The Bourne Ultimatum—and I don’t hesitate to append Lust, Caution to the list. Be it the franchise blockbuster or the historical assassination thriller, the standard of achievement in the espionage genre, with respect to both brains and execution, is now at least comparable to the Hitchcock oeuvre without being completely outclassed.

And Lust, Caution begs to reach for the Hitchcock benchmark anyway, regardless of whether or not it succeeds. Even beyond the explicit allusions to films like Suspicion, it’s a film about the manufacture of a woman into a femme fatale, a theme that occurs time and again in Hitchcock’s best work— Vertigo, North by Northwest, and perhaps my personal favourite, Notorious (to name a few). Like Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, the femme fatale put in the position of using her sexuality as a tool of entrapment (Wong Chia Chi, played by Tang Wei) is the heroine who guides us through the plot, and not someone whose side of the story is concealed, as is often the case in classic noir driven by male protagonists of variable moral righteousness.

Naturally, how much of that “sexuality as a tool of entrapment” you can actually show has changed dramatically since 1946, which is why Lust, Caution is rated NC-17 in the United States, and where my discussion of the film becomes a tad more involved.

It’s always inadvisable to demarcate a genre (be it in film, music, literature, or anywhere else) with properties that member works must have. For example, anyone silly enough to claim that all epic fantasy sagas must include swords, magic and dragons will quickly find a prominent author whose work undoubtedly belongs in the category, but had the nerve to leave out the dragons. I recommend Philip Pullman.

I say this as a disclaimer, because I think a film like Lust, Caution, in being astoundingly explicit in its sex and violence by mainstream standards, belongs to a whole new species of thrillers. (And any categorical boundary we draw around it would likely also encompass Munich.) My reasoning here is that the genre of film noir that we associate with directors such as Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock as its leading practitioners is firmly, and perhaps fundamentally, defined by storytelling techniques that create tension with concealment. It was the era of Hollywood censorship that begat some of the lustiest eroticism and most chilling acts of violence in cinema—implied outside the frame, yet far more potent in their emotional impact than what you see in most films today that try to discomfort the audience by showing everything.

I’ve made this argument before in my post about Sin City:

What interests me is how so many people will take a look at Rodriguez’s adaptation of the Frank Miller graphic novels, admire it for its production design and say “that’s noir” without identifying any specific similarities beyond the presence of pulp archetypes like disenchanted detectives, pernicious prostitutes and corrupt coppers. Yet they make special note of the amplified comic-book physics as antique vehicles soar above the pavement and a landed punch sends a thug across the room. They cite the explicit violence and casual nudity as distinguishing marks of the film. They fail to notice that the obtuse, centrifugal expression to be found in Sin City places it at the other side of the world from what makes film noir tick.

Film noir is not about sex, booze and violence. It is about concealment and innuendo. The lines of noir dialogue you remember are the suggestive propositions. That is precisely why film noir flourished in the era of Hollywood censorship, its defining female archetype the femme fatale seductress with something to hide. It should tell you something that the narrative mode most closely associated with noir is the mystery, a story of secrecy and revelation. It’s when you don’t see sex, booze and violence that film noir is at its most effective.

So what I’m interested in is this: how does a film such as Lust, Caution—which is nothing like the unabashedly escapist genre parody of Sin City—evoke the tension of the classic noir thriller while getting as far away from concealment and self-censorship as one could imagine? Is it in the tempo of the film, its staging, or perhaps its careful control of perspective? What is it about Tang Wei’s remarkable performance that draws comparisons between her character and Ingrid Bergman’s in Notorious, when the latter’s most erotic act onscreen is the three-minute kiss on the balcony with Cary Grant?

I’m guessing that a large part of the answer lies in Ang Lee’s mastery of using sex scenes to develop character, something that I predict will be one of his major legacies as a world-renowned director.

There will undoubtedly be viewers who will find the sex in Lust, Caution to have too much lust and too little caution for their tastes, and walk away with the judgment that it wasn’t necessary for it to be that explicit. In China, which still enforces content restrictions instead of compelling self-censorship with an independent ratings board, it’s been trimmed by 9 minutes. (9 minutes? There was that much?)

I maintain, however, that the sex is not at all superfluous—and I’m not going to defend it with the hackneyed “but-but-but it’s the artist’s vision!” argument. There’s a critical juncture in the film that only works if you absolutely buy the transformative effect of bodily intimacy on the characters’ ability to make rational decisions. And much of the characterization—the development of strengths, the exposure of vulnerabilities—only works the way it does if you observe, in the progression of the sex scenes, what happens to the power structure between the participants. If you recall Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and how it bookended some of its character development with consensual sex at one end and rape at the other, you might have an idea of what I’m talking about.

It isn’t the first time rape has been deployed as an allegory for fascism, either (to call a spade a spade and go for the self-evident interpretation). I already considered Tony Leung Chiu Wai one of the greatest actors on the planet before this film; his subdued role here as a collaborationist officer is something unique, yet directly reminiscent of one of the most fearsome villains on the silver screen, Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List.

A note on the adaptation: Lust, Caution is based on a story by Eileen Chang, who is reportedly my mother’s favourite author. I’m told that part of the inspiration for the story was Chang’s first marriage, which was to Hu Lancheng, a man who collaborated with the Japanese in 1940s Nanjing. Hu later wrote a memoir that included his own account of the marriage; my mother assures me that she has never been angrier with a book.

Chang translated many of her own works into English, but Lust, Caution wasn’t one of them; however, there is a new translation by Julia Lovell released in conjunction with the film. I’ll pick it up sometime, but I’m finding it impossible to squeeze off-syllabus readings into my schedule as it is—and should I even manage that, Gentlemen of the Road has top priority.

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