My Own Private Cinema is a monthly RADII column that focuses on impactful and inspiring films from China’s cinema history.
By the mid-2000s, director Ang Lee had become a household name after the release of his film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The high-flying blockbuster, which featured some of China’s most famous actors, is still considered a classic of modern Chinese wuxia film.
But perhaps truer in spirit to Lee’s tendency of exploring unspoken desires is Lust, Caution, an underrated spy thriller set in wartime China that is remembered most vividly for its explicit — the Motion Picture Association of America gave it an adults only (NC-17) rating — sex scenes.
In Lee’s career, Lust, Caution often gets overlooked in favor of his epics such as Life of Pi and Crouching Tiger. Reviews at the time of its release were mixed, and it was criticized for being overlong, profane, anti-patriotic, and anti-feminist. But over a decade later, this tense, understated film is still worth closer examination.
Following the success of Brokeback Mountain in the mid-2000s, Ang Lee chose to adapt the work of one of China’s most famous novelists, Eileen Chang, for his next project.
The heroine of the lean novella was purportedly inspired by a real-life counterpart — Chinese spy Zheng Pingru — as well as some of the author’s own controversial history (Chang’s first husband was accused of being a traitor for the Japanese puppet government, a fact that probably would’ve landed her in hot water with readers at the time.) Whether or not her tale was indeed the inspiration for the book, Zhang ultimately spins a twisted love story of her own in which the spy’s faux relationship with Mr. Yee becomes very real, as he unexpectedly worms his way into her heart. It ultimately leads to a betrayal that divided theatergoers when the film adaptation was released.
Lee’s film pads Chang’s short story to over two-and-a-half hours, ultimately earning the director a Golden Lion when the film premiered at Venice Film Festival in 2007. Though mainland audiences flocked to pirated sites to stream it, the film offended authorities for its “glorification of traitors” as well as the sex scenes — the latter of which resulted in lead actress Tang Wei’s ban from acting in China for several years.
I first saw only the sex scenes as a college student, shown to me by a friend who wanted me to be as scandalized by them as he was. Divorced from any of the context provided by the film’s plot, the raunchy, athletic, and sometimes violent depictions of sex left me both repulsed and intrigued.
But rewatching the film ten years later, it’s clear that this was essential to conveying these lovers’ complex, and at times dysfunctional dynamic, as well as the author’s intended message about love and duty.
The thread that best connects Lee’s films is that most explore the tension between performed identities and secret desires. Even his earliest films such as The Wedding Banquet (1993) — in which a committed gay man must go through the motions of a traditional wedding to please his parents — explore how everyone has secrets that they must keep under wraps. While Lee described the idea of a secret relationship in his more recent, and more widely known film Brokeback Mountain as a lofty ideal punctured by real-world expectations, the dynamic in Lust, Caution was love at its most agonizing — something that Zhang herself sought to evoke in her writing.
“To me, no writer has ever used the Chinese language as cruelly as Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang),” wrote Lee in an afterword for the film, “and no story of hers is as beautiful or as cruel as ‘Lust, Caution.’ She revised the story for years and years… returning to it as a criminal might return to the scene of a crime, or as a victim might reenact a trauma, reaching for pleasure only by varying and reimagining the pain.”
Part of this pleasure and pain is derived from watching the main character, Wong Chia Chi, have her innocence torn away from her as she puts her mind and body on the line for her country. A soft-spoken university student in Hong Kong at the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Wong is recruited by her patriotic fellow students into a very amateur assassination plot against Mr. Yee, a traitor to China who corroborates with the Japanese. She is tasked with infiltrating Yee’s wife’s social circle by posing as a trader’s wife, eventually becoming Mr. Yee’s mistress.
The plan fails spectacularly, and years pass before Wong is recruited again in Shanghai by one of her old classmates, who now works for the Chinese secret intelligence.
Formally trained in espionage, Wong becomes the “perfect weapon” to seduce Yee — who is now employed by the Japanese puppet government to interrogate spies — and she quickly reenters his wife’s inner circle as before. Wong successfully becomes his mistress, but at a brutal cost. In their first moment alone together she is raped by Yee, who approaches intimacy with the same aggression and lack of empathy that he approaches his work. As he leaves her, a faint smile crosses her lips. It’s a disturbing touch, and one that divides viewers on how Wong is characterized in the film. Perhaps in smiling Wong has accepted the sacrifices she must make, or come to realize and accept her own lack of agency.
Actress Tang Wei shared the billing with veteran Hong Kong actor Tony Leung, and for her first major film she is luminous. Sashaying through each scene in tailored qipao dresses as she darts between no less than four languages, she is convincing both as a shy student and as a worldly trader’s wife. (It doesn’t hurt that looks-wise, Tang is a dead ringer for the Shanghai “poster girls” that adorned advertisements of the period.)
Leung, meanwhile, is inscrutible as Mr. Yee. The film makes good use of the In The Mood for Love star’s capacity for restrained expression, piercing women and object alike with his stern gaze.
Though a film that touches on politics, Lust, Caution largely focuses on individuals and how they struggle in systems or movements that do not serve them — a fact that no doubt drew Lee to the source material.
Eileen Chang often went against the grain in how she explored the intersection of politics with personal beliefs and matters of the heart. Haiyan Lee, a professor of Chinese and comparative literature at Stanford University, writes that it was common for fiction writers at the time to pen stories in which a “bourgeois romantic overcome his or her ‘privation’” at the end of a love affair “by plunging into revolutionary torrents.” But Chang preferred the opposite; stories such as Lust, Caution pull the veil away from the “ecstasy of mass politics” to examine individuals — particularly how they pursue their wants and needs, and fulfill personal ethics — in times of conflict.
The biggest criticism of the film was about the ending, in which — spoiler alert — Wong is seemingly so moved by a bejeweled ring that Yee presents to her, that she betrays her comrades. Given the difficulties with her relationship with him, it’s a hard pill to swallow. But her comrades have little to offer her either.
While working as a spy, the men that Wong reports to — including her classmate and love interest, played by ’00s-era heartthrob Wang Leehom — give her very little agency. Her skills and body are repeatedly exploited by the men around her, and decisions about them are increasingly made without her presence or consent as the chance to assassinate Yee draws nearer.
For Yee, we see the opposite trajectory. Though he is undoubtedly cruel to her at first, as he presumably is to all creatures he can control, Wong seems to eventually uncover a kindred spirit in him. By the end of the story, both have become somewhat disillusioned by the movements they represent, and formed an unlikely connection.
Lee reinforces the growing bond throughout the multitude of sex scenes included in the second half of his film. In each, Yee seems to gradually relax and open up to her, relinquishing his dominance. Their body positions change to more equal footing, and they even embrace intense eye contact. Like the title, caution gradually gives way to lust — then love. (Whether or not it feels plausible these two characters can actually discern between the two emotions is up to the viewer’s interpretation.)
It’s implied in the last scene in the film that despite his reservations, Yee did in fact grow to love his enemy and regrets that his position forces him to have her killed. He sorrowfully sits on the bed she once occupied in the darkness, running his hands along the sheets, before a knock from his wife snaps him back to reality.
Eileen Chang’s literary contemporaries would certainly not have chosen this route, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Lust, Caution is ultimately a look at how times of war and death can move us to do desperate things to feel alive and connected. Like the conflicting emotions of lust and caution, its characters make choices that are rash, contradictory, imperfect, and all too human.
Header image: Tang Wei as Wong Chia Chi in Lust, Caution (2007)