LUST CAUTION is an absolutely accurate title for this movie, but it’s better in Chinese because in Chinese it’s two word-characters. To me the second one looks a little like a sailing ship. But in fact, “The title is actually an untranslatable pun in Chinese, in which the words for “Caution” and “Ring” (as in jewelry) are written using the same ideogram in Chinese.” (imdb.com) The movie itself is a French resistance movie as made by a Fifties Hollywood studio except through a Chinese filter. The “lust” is not French vanilla. It’s Chinese. If I were NPR, I’d give you a caution even for this review. Sex is often one of the most telling areas for distinguishing cultures and the US is one of the most prudish. To our eyes the sweating, shuddering origamis of these encounters is shocking. I don’t know whether the lovers being Asian is a plus or a minus. Their anatomies are so much neater and more flexible than those in, say, “Red Shoe Diaries.”
Ang Lee is the director and for those of us who have been watching Chinese films, there are as many familiar faces as there are for those of us who watch BBC repertory. Studios from China, Taiwan, the US, and Hong Kong collaborated to produce the movie. The languages are mixed with subtitles when necessary. Lee’s cinematographer is Mexican and the music was composed by a Frenchman. If I say I don’t remember the music, it is a compliment. “Red Shoes Diary” is almost a music vid: the music dominates.
“Trivia” from imdb.com: “Ang Lee made Tony Leung Chiu Wai study the performances of Marlon Brando in “Ultimo tango a Parigi”, Humphrey Bogart in “In a Lonely Place”, and Richard Burton in “Equus” to give him a sense of wounded masculinity, which Lee felt was right for the character of Mr. Yee. The song that Wang Jiazhi sings to Mr Yee is entitled “A Singing Girl At The Edge of the World” and was the theme song of a popular film, “Malu Tianshi” (Street Angel) released four years before the events of the film took place. It is still considered an evergreen standard in Chinese pop music and has been covered by many other artists since.” This is film as literature, packed with allusions that enrich the experience for those who recognize them.
The movie is billed as a thriller because no one would go see a “philosophical” movie even if it DID have sex in it! It’s clear from interviews that Lee did have a premise that was philosophical and psychological, very schematic. He used the plots from two short stories by Eileen Chang that are about the Japanese occupation of China and the resistance against oppression. It could just as easily have been Germany occupying France, but America — he says explicitly — could not use these dynamics because the US has never been occupied.
The heroine is charged with seducing the main occupying officer and luring him into a trap. Their encounter is so intense that she falls in love with him and she is so genuinely innocent and loving that he falls in love with her. There is one speech she makes, explaining to her resistance team, that is a classic. Lee says that there is an old saying: “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach; the way to a woman’s heart is through her . . .” – well, between her legs.
Sex here is about the involuntary physiological tie the body makes in any violent, intense encounter. The intimacy between the torturer and the victim is discussed other places. So the heroine tries to get the men, one of whom loves her but is too passive to express it, to understand what it does to her to physically and emotionally fuse with this man while knowing that at any moment the team gets access, they will shoot him in the back of the head even if she is under him, merged with him. The abyss at the end, another compelling image, at least offers surcease.
But Ang Lee’s understanding of the US is framed by the white Euros who are the occupiers of it, and entirely skips over the tenacity of resistance by the original Native peoples of the American continents. Some have assimilated (those are the ones whites are likely to know), some have been crushed into zombies, and some thread their way through a labyrinth of evasion and collaboration to preserve their identity. The key book or movie has not been created yet. When it is, I hope Ang Lee or someone like him is the director.
The comments at imdb.com were intriguing since some came from Chinese people. In interviews Lee himself said that Western viewers complained that the movie moved too slowly, but the Eastern viewers said it went too quickly. (It was sort of BBC Masterpiece Theatre speed, except that BBC mysteries move at the speed of light — I often have to watch them twice.) But the Eastern viewers wanted others to understand that the point of view was China’s and it SHOULD be. I would agree. Hyping the actress or the sex, in the traditional Hollywood way, is a dead end if not an insult. I’d love to hear how an Islamic or African person reacted.
We are in a time of culture-mixing that is not always attached to genetics or national boundaries, but some of the swirls of plot that they generate become archetypal. The idealistic but violent attempts to restore the past; the willingness to compromise almost anything in order to reach a goal, which might only be survival; the blunders and epiphanies as people share unsuspected humanity; the preoccupied mahjong players who care only about their “bone game”; the oppressors with their own secret abcessed hearts — all repeat through history and future.
At Heart Butte we sometimes explored a story by rewriting it scene-for-scene in our own terms. So “Dirty Dancing” became “Dirty Trail Riding” as we changed the setting from an Eastern Jewish resort to Glacier National Park where some Blackfeet have guiding businesses. It worked pretty well. The main point I wanted to make was that, as Ang Lee shows us, humans are not that different from each other. You must look for their hearts, which they themselves may feel they have lost.