Monday, December 03, 2007


Quite by accident, I happened to see the final season of The Sopranos on the same week as Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, the follow-up film, if you listen to critics, to Brokeback Mountain. This means that I happened to see Tony Leung playing a character with more than a few parallels to James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. Leung, one of the finest actors alive, plays the role of a Chinese comprador, collaborating with the occupying Japanese administration, with lethal understatement. The narrative of the film entails what happens when Leung’s character, Mr. Yee, gets involved with a friend of his wife, Mrs. Mak, who is not what she seems.

That is one way you could tell and see this story. Here’s another. A gaggle of students in Hong Kong in 1938 gang together to raise funds for the war against Japan by putting on a patriotic play. One young girl who is coaxed into joining the production ends up with the lead role because she is far more intense as an actress than any of the rest. When the students decide to carry their resistance to Japan to the next level by becoming an underground cell, this same student is again coaxed into participating, only to discover once again that her sense of commitment and engagement far exceeds that of the others. She is so good at what she does that she frightens the rest. But they pin their hopes on her as the mechanism to bring them close to their target, an official who is secretly helping Japan, and in so doing persuade her to do things about which she does not feel good. She succeeds at what she’s asked, but the rest of the group are such amateurs that the plot goes awry, the target escapes (tho a second collaborator is indeed killed, collectively, with different students taking turns stabbing him), and the group scatters to escape. Three years later, Japan has won the war with China but is now engaged in a larger, more difficult battle against the United States. This same female student is contacted by members of her old cell, still actively a part of the resistance, and asked to help again set up this same target, who now has become the head of the secret police for the regime the Japanese have installed. Again she is asked to do things that profoundly impact her sense of self, but succeeds in putting him into position where the cell can attack. At this moment, she makes a decision that calls into question everything she has done up to that moment. This has profound consequences.

Here is a third perspective. Nothing the young woman does impacts the outcome of this narrative at all. The secret police have been tracking this ragtag group of conspirators all along and simply sweep in and pick them up. Indeed, they have been watching the official as well. They take documents from his inner office and let him know that he too has been an object of surveillance. He knows that it doesn’t matter. “All our days are numbered now that America has entered the war.” As indeed, in real life, they would have been.

Eileen Chang, the Taiwanese novelist who penned the story from which James Schamus (Ice Storm; Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger; The Hulk; Tortilla Soup) adapted the screenplay, was herself roughly the same age as Wei Tang, the young directing student who plays Mrs. Mak, when, during World War II, she married an already married official of the collaborative regime, following him to the port city of Wenzhou after the defeat of the Japanese & collapse of the puppet regime. He, however, abandoned her for another woman and fled to Japan. If Chang’s biography echoes aspects of the student who impersonates Mrs. Mak, it’s no accident. Indeed, like the student, one of Chang’s parents abandoned her by moving to England. When, after Mr. Yee has disappeared for a few days, leaving the conspirators to wonder where their target has gone, it is the former student who thinks out loud, “Maybe he has another woman.” In that line, one finds the author speaking directly to the audience, or to herself.

This may explain, I think, why – maybe even how – Ang Lee has made a film of this sort thoroughly from the woman’s point of view. In spite of having one of the two or three most famous Chinese actors in the world in the key role of Mr. Yee, this is a tale of how a young girl is transformed, from student to revolutionary to something altogether different, which doesn’t really have a name and which cannot be saved.

You will notice that I’ve gotten over 750 words into this note without once using the word sex. In spite of all the reviews, obsessed with the idea that an Oscar-winning director would immediately follow up with a film rated NC-17, this is not a movie about sex. This is a film about how people react to sex. Sex changes everything. It transforms every character in this narrative, regardless of how distant from it they are. For example, the too-handsome-for-words young director of the theater troupe (played by Rochester-born Taiwanese rock star Lee-Hom Wang), with whom the young women of the group are all hopelessly in love, goes from being a hot-headed dynamic young artist – how the student thinks of him at first – to being a bumbling, lethally stupid amateur spy whose one lame advance on the one-time student, towards the end of the second plot to get Mr. Yee, she brushes aside with “Why didn’t you do that three years ago?” Three years ago, she still might have been the young woman thrilled to be kissed by this romantic lost puppy. But not now.

Some of the really dumb reviews have noticed that the sex scenes in this film aren’t especially erotic, even though a couple of them are fairly gymnastic. But they’re not about eros, not in the slightest. If anything, they’re ideological, almost in the Althusserian sense.

The student is supposed to seduce Mr. Yee and her cover story presupposes her to be married. To maintain her cover, she shouldn’t be a virgin if and when Mr. Yee makes his move. The group as a whole has already decided, before they even ask her, that she has to have sexual experience, but the only member of the organization who is not a virgin, and therefore theoretically able to teach her, is the rich kid who’s financing all their Baader-Meinnhof / Symbionese Liberation Army fantasies, and that only in brothels. He’s pathetic and she’s irritated, but she goes along with this only to walk out into a roomful of stares from her comrades – if they already sensed her level of intensity transcended their own, she’s now crossed an invisible border. She’s the one adult in the organization.

This is still true three years later when she confronts the director and his superior in the resistance, Old Wu, explaining in painful detail (and at the top of her lungs) exactly what goes on in her head when having sex with this literal sadist. By now, she has crossed over into a place where she has no real counterparts or peers. She can’t be open with Mr. Yee – he would kill her as surely as Tony Soprano ordered the hit on Chris’ fiancé Adrianna, and for the same reasons – yet nobody “on her side” has even a clue what it feels like to do what she does. Her one other friend in the household, Mrs. Yee (played by Joan Chen), is in denial of everything, from her husband’s infidelities to the coming consequences of the Second World War. She just sits in the compound, playing mah jong, or goes shopping. When Mr. Yee rapes Mrs. Mak, it’s exhausting and painful to watch. (It also ensures that none of the later sex scenes can be perceived as driven by desire.) My wife swears that when, at the scene’s end, Mr. Yee throws Mrs. Mak’s coat at her half-naked form, rolled up into a fetal position on the bed, she’s half-smiling because she knows she’s got him. Who here is the hunter & who is the bait?

If this film has a direct antecedent, it’s not Brokeback Mountain or films like Last Tango in Paris or Realm of the Senses, but Ang Lee’s own The Ice Storm, still his best feature, in how it strips each character of every pretense until we get down to drives & contradictions. What are we supposed to think of a woman who uses sex for anything but love? What is she herself supposed to think? Or Mr. Yee, for that matter? When he takes Mrs. Mak to a Japanese geisha house, she says to him “You want me to be your whore.” “No,” he replies, “I’m the whore here.” These are lines, of course, that apply every bit as much to actors & directors, and a more Brechtian director would have shown a boom mike or cameraman reflected in a window to underscore the point. Lee is centuries beyond the nonsense that equates fucking with love or commitment, and yet he’s fascinated with the undeniable psychic power it wields on everyone who enters into its orbit. And, on some level, that’s all of us.


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