November 13, 2007 -- “Lust, Caution” (Se, jie) is a movie about a group of college students who get involved in politics and espionage with tragic results. The students, some of whom are actors, are way out of their league when it comes to locking horns with global geopolitical powers. The ensuing story is one of misplaced passions and priorities, missed opportunities and wasted lives.
Young and beautiful, Wong Jiazhi (played by Wei Tang) has been left behind in China while her parents and siblings flee to England in 1938 as World War II is about to begin. Wong becomes involved with some college students who start a drama society in order to raise money for nationalist troops who were battling invading Japanese forces. Wong finds she has a gift for acting and is able to move audiences using nationalistic messages. Wong thus becomes a symbol for the director (Ang Lee of “Brokeback Mountain” fame) and all actors and artists. She is drawn to the passionate and charismatic leader of the students, Kuang Yu Min (Wang Leehom). Although they have feelings for each other, Kuang and Wong never act on them. With her family overseas and Wong left on her own, the student group in effect becomes her new family. Kuang comes up with a daring plan during the summer to assassinate a Japanese collaborator, Mr. Yee (veteran actor Tony Leung Chiu Wai of “Infernal Affairs”).
Yee is a powerful figure in the local Chinese collaborationist government. His job is to neutralize Chinese nationalist resistance. Wong, playing the part of a wealthy merchant's wife, Mrs. Mak, uses her acting ability to become friends with Yee's wife, (played by Joan Chen) and eventually Yee himself. The plot fails, ending in the brutal murder of one of Yee's operatives. The acting troupe scatters to the four winds. Four years later, while living in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, Wong is once again approached by Kuang who persuades her to resume her role as Mrs. Mak in another attempt to kill Mr. Yee, who has now become even more powerful in the Shanghai puppet government. Eventually Wong becomes Yee's lover and the two have a torrid affair. Wong develops emotional problems with her role as a spy. Her feelings about Yee and her role in his assassination become deeply conflicted.
Any hope Wong had of sexually manipulating Yee is dispelled early in the affair when Yee brutally rapes her. Yee is too smart and too experienced to become a sexual pawn. He establishes dominance and maintains it. Wong confesses to her handlers in the resistance that she cannot fool Yee. During their graphic sexual encounters all pretense is stripped away and her soul is laid bare. She is not pretending. Yee would see through any pretense. Her handlers are stunned. She is losing control over her emotions. At last Kuang kisses Wong to show her how he feels. She tells him he should have done that three years earlier.
The film argues that meddling in politics is pointless, that only in love is there meaning. The mistake the characters make is to meddle in politics and think that is more important than their feelings for each other. Wong tried to deny her heart, but in the end could not. Only in the end does Kuang realize how wrong his priorities have been. Love and family are what is really important. Instead, he was obsessed with politics. He should have just done what most college students do: drink lots of beer and have lots of sex. He, Wong and the rest of the world would have been better off.
The characters in the film, even if they actually existed (they did not), would all be long dead by now. Nothing they did, felt or said had any real impact on history. Their tragic lives had no meaning whatsoever. In some ways they were heroic, but their hopes, dreams, accomplishments and creations amounted to nothing at all in the end. The entire story is an exercise in absurdity. In this case the absurdity was played as a drama, but not a very entertaining one. It might have been more effective and more entertaining had it been played as a comedy. As Woody Allen argued in the film “Melinda and Melinda” the same absurd situation can be scripted either as tragedy or comedy.
Here is a similar absurd situation (in a scene from “Play it Again, Sam”) played for comedy, which takes place in an art museum:
Allan: That's quite a lovely Jackson Pollack, isn't it?
Museum Girl: Yes, it is.
Allan: What does it say to you?
Museum Girl: It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of Man forced to live in a barren, Godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror and degradation, forming a useless bleak straitjacket in a black absurd cosmos.
Allan: What are you doing Saturday night?
Museum Girl: Committing suicide.
Allan: What about Friday night?
The idea that life is tragic, pointless and absurd is common among artistic types. This idea seems to be the wellspring for countless books and movies. This idea can be expressed in comic fashion (as in “Dr. Strangelove”) or in tragic fashion (“Brokeback Mountain”). I don't personally like writers and movie directors inflicting their bleak view of the world on me, but it isn't so bad if it is at least done in an entertaining manner (such as in “Lawrence of Arabia” or “The Bridge on the River Kwai”). It is bad enough to have to sit and listen to some twit tell me how meaningless existence really is, but to have to pay the same twit (thereby encouraging him) for the privilege of listening to that kind of bilge, now that is just plain uncalled for. I paid, I listened, but I am not going to pretend to be entertained by it.
This film is slow-moving, but is generally well-crafted with fine acting, direction and exceptional production values. That's not the problem. It is also a downer with no redeeming entertainment value outside of its hot sex scenes (which earn it the dreaded NC-17 rating). The elaborate, multi-position sex scenes reminded me of the ones in “Team USA: World Police,” a film which helped Bush win a presidential election. If that doesn't illustrate the folly of entertainers meddling in politics, I don't know what does. This film rates a C.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.