A Movie Review: Lust, Caution

One of the ways I’ve always known I was moved by a film is that I sit through all the credits, allowing time to collect myself.  This time the credits were in Chinese, and still I sat. One of the movies that’s been sitting in our streaming cue for nearly a year is Lust, Caution.  I think I resisted watching it because I was annoyed by a movie title that included a comma.

This 2007 movie got passionately mixed reviews. The New York Times'  reviewer disliked this wartime epic about Japanese-occupied Shanghai and Hong Kong for reasons way beyond the odd title.  I agree this movie is too long and I think it has a very slow start.  As a westerner, I was handicapped by not knowing the history of this era well enough to follow the plot easily in the early part of the movie, and  there were visual and psychological adjustments I had to make because the style of the movie was Western, but the stars were Asian. It’s part of a not-that-charming provincialism that sometimes kicks in when the people on the screen don't look like us.

But we kept watching, and it was worth it for the complicated love (or hate?) story between the young, drama student who, as part of a band of young revolutionaries, becomes “Mrs. Mak” (Tang Wei) a wealthy, bored wife whose goal is to ensnare and, with her mates, kill the Chinese turncoat, “Mr Yee” who works for the terrorist Japanese invaders.  Played by Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Mr Yee is easy to hate, and compelling enough to gradually consider other responses to him.

Most movies strain credibility in some way or other and this one, directed by Ang Lee of Brokeback Mountain fame, does too.  But it doesn’t matter because I found something compelling in the relationship between this man and woman as it unfolded in deeply violent and unnerving political times.

Whether it was lust or love is decided by the viewer, but the love scenes between these two actors may take your breath away.  The Times described them as a “vigorous pantomime of coitus,” and I vigorously disagree. I thought they were lovely, sensual and sometimes shocking, even for these times.  I believe most American moviemakers do sex scenes badly, and I’m always annoyed that we see so much vulnerability and frontal nudity from women and so little of anything very intriguing from rutting men.  in Lust, Caution I felt I was watching two people losing control of their dangerous lives for the sake of something that lives deep within each of us:  the desire for that close physical connection that may also be about emotional joining.  Their lust (Passion?  Love?) entwined them tightly as a steel cable, and you know there will be no survival for either of them.  They were headed over the falls together.

Like the characters, I was drawn deeper and deeper into their private abyss and, as the dénouement bore down on us all, my heart was broken for them.  It didn’t matter that he was evil and she was naive and way out of her depth.   In the end they were a folie à deux in the middle of a war, able to stop time for a while, but only for a while.


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