Review of Ang Lee’s Chinese wartime espionage drama, the follow-up to Brokeback Mountain.
Sex, War by Tom Jennings
Chinese genre chameleon Lee follows gay cowboy tragedy Brokeback Mountain (2005) with another epic of transgressive desire in the espionage thriller Lust, Caution – both expanded from short stories by strong women (E. Annie Proulx, Eileen Chang) struggling against convention. Trumping the former’s contrast of the constraints of cultural rootedness and middle-class mobility in shaping sensual expression,* the doomed romance here resonates with epochal historical significance – referencing ideological, cultural, and national conflict inextricably complicating individual vicissitudes of gender role, performance and identity. Again, universal themes are conjured from highly specific contexts (the Second World War Japanese occupation of China) and characters (newcomer Tang Wei as student Wong Chia Chi erotically ensnaring for assassination purposes collaborationist secret police chief, veteran Tony Leung’s Mr Yee) through immaculate structure, design, acting and cinematography.
So, our Hong Kong college theatre ensemble graduates from patriotic productions to plotting a strike at the puppet state in the person of its chief enforcer. As bait, Wong insinuates herself into Mrs Yee’s circle, honing the simulation of upper-class mores and inching closer to intimacy with the quarry while her most dissolute comrade initiates her in the sexual athleticism necessary to complete her task. Despite the amateurism they nearly succeed but the set-up fails, and three years later Wong is aimlessly ensconced in her impoverished Shanghai family. Yee’s glittering career is also established there, and the rest of her troupe – now under Maoist direction – make contact to continue the plan. However, the ensuing passionate affair develops a life of its own as the group’s cadre commander defers the payoff in favour of gathering further intelligence. When the crunch finally comes, Wong’s attachment leads her to warn Yee, who escapes and has the conspirators executed.
This lustfully cautionary tale escalates from the traditional Chinese scandal of private yearnings disrupting the public cultivation of respectable decorum. Yet whereas suffocating strictures of conformism bolster the status quo, the unruly desire exemplified by sexuality and its discontents may be deployed subversively in the gaps between the minutiae of custom and surface appearance. But with seductive tension mounting towards ecstatic release, Wong’s initial motivation to play a part in liberating her social world from oppression is undone by the exquisite bodily intensity experienced in the liaison – having subsumed her entire existence in perfecting its foreplay and consummation. Lee underscores the contradictions with magnificent explicit sex scenes, convincingly depicting both protagonists’ anguished, aggressive, will-to-connect forcefully overflowing other agendas. Foregrounding the fundamental obstinacy of bodily urgency to socialisation, Lust, Caution’s melodramatic sublation of sex and death illustrates the fatal naiveté of instrumentally linking libidinal logic to conscious, rational projects – whether mundanely personal, cynically self-interested, or those their adherents imagine to be wholly collectively worthy.
* see my comments on Brokeback Mountain in ‘Cowboys and Injuries’ (www.starandshadow.org.uk).
Film review published in Freedom, Vol. 69, No. 8, May 2008.
Further essays and reviews by Tom Jennings can be found at: