Lust Caution (Se, jei, 色, 戒)
This story started out as a novella published by Eileen Chang in 1979. Lust Caution and Brokeback Mountain shares some superficial similarities as both are short stories written by women and bought to the big screen by Ang Lee. Lust Caution was set to the backdrop of Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation of China between 1937 to 1945.
“Between memory and reality there are awkward discrepancies producing a solemn but subtle agitation, an intense but as yet indefinable struggle“. – [《流言》] (1968)
Warning Spoiler Alert!
This tale starts in a humble place with a young girl name Wong Chia Chi. Early in the movie, viewers are treated to glimpses of her unhappy life; then, gradually, we learn that she was abandoned by her father, who escaped to England. Wong Chia Chi’s origin story takes shape during her first year of college when she joins a drama group. Through her close connection with this group, Wong Chia Chi finds acceptance and develops a love for theater. Slowly she blossoms into a confident woman on stage, but offstage she is still timid and withdrawn. As Hong Kong descends deeper into social and political unrest, her drama groups start putting on patriotic plays. To everyone’s amazement, Wong Chia Chi stands out as the breakout star among the pack.
As the film progresses, we understand that outside of acting and socializing, the group was fostering a resistance mindset in its members and audience. While the patriotic plays represented their frustration and offered a safe space to protest the Japanese invaders, it wasn’t enough. Collectively they decide that instead of passive opposition, they would actively resist the only way they knew how. The goal was to use their acting abilities to disrupt the power from within by crafting an ambitious plan to kill Mr. Yee (a collaborator with the invaders). As a larger-than-life character, Mr. Yee became the target because he formed an alliance with the Japanese in hopes of creating a government that would undoubtedly leave him in power. Unknown to him, the group carefully planned a seduction game with Chia-Chi as the leading lady, tasked with pulling off the most significant role she’d ever play in her life. The hope was to get Mr. Yee into a vulnerable situation, causing him to let his guards down. The first attempt to execute this mission failed due to a host of issues causing them to abort the plan. After their failed attempt, the group disbanded permanently and dissolved their friendships for fear of being found out.
A few years later, Chia-Chi was reunited with Kuang, the drama group leader, who informed her that he was a secret agent working Chinese Nationalist Party (CNP). Kuang then recruited her to reprise her role once again as Mrs. Mak. This time with the backing of CNP, it’s assumed that this assignation plan will be successful. The second time around, it was easy for her to slide back into her role as companion to Mr. Yee’s wife, and over time she becomes his lover. But matters of the heart are never as straightforward as we want them to be. As Chia Chi and Mr. Yee fell in love and with careless abandonment, their unbridled passion became the film’s turning point. This growing feeling is Chia-Chi weakness, and warns Mr. Yee of his pending demise.
Upon my first viewing of this movie, I felt like I had time-traveled back to Hong Kong during this period. In those moments, I understand that movies aren’t only about the actors, directors, or scriptwriters, as the costumes, set design, hair, location, sound, and makeup were my favorite part of this story. Ang Lee makes it a point to reach the deepest depths of human emotion to move the audience, but the acting and directing wouldn’t have been as convincing without the aesthetics.
Movies, for me, are a testament to our innate love for storytelling that communicates varying degrees of sameness and difference all at once. While many of us wouldn’t have personal experience with espionage, the topics Lust Caution touches can be related to anyone’s life at any given time. Before I start spilling my guts about what makes this a great film (to me), readers must know that I am an amateur. I am not a professional movie reviewer as most of my understanding and preference for a film is about what moves me. It’s about the meanings I extract over a long period of re-watches, but ultimately, it’s about how well the illusion is painted and sold.
Many people find this movie painfully dull which is a similar sentiment sometimes lavished upon Brokeback Mountain. Without the intense sex scenes and historical background, if you aren’t into long dialogue in a foreign language (Mandarin), it may seem boring. While Brokeback Mountains is entirely in English, the same could be said as to why many people tolerated watching it after its release. For without the idea of two men being intimate, perhaps this would be another boring country-western film. What makes this movie stand out to me is society’s duality, the environment, and everyone involved. Mr. Yee represents power and resistance in public, but his lust for Chia Chi is displayed in his ferocious sexual power behind closed doors. While Chia-Chi appears timid before she takes this assignment, she comes off as brave when playing Mrs. Mak. The dichotomous characters all play roles that somewhat problematic and contradictary but it adds substances to the story.
This is an erotic espionage war drama on the surface, but for me, I see it in another way. I see this through the gaze of a woman who is repressed sexually, controlled by her gender, the men around her.
Acting became Chia Chi’s escape out of poverty, but ultimately it allowed her to experience the type of sex she may have never had the courage to have.
It’s an understated way to show that women are still guarded about their sexuality, instead of putting their true self out there; a character must be constructed to represent this side of them.
While the sex scenes depict violence, they are also erotic and describe a type of female fantasy a large population of women tends to have when thinking about the traditional role of their desire. I tend to wonder if this fantasy came to us naturally or was it inflicted upon us by men and the societies they control. Even though Chia-Chi seems free in her role as Mrs. Mak, I also wonder what part of her desire for Mr. Yee was naturally her own.
I often ponder about how we form our sexuality and what influences us to have certain sexual preferences in terms of what we think is desirable. In 50 Shades of Grey, the leading male is into bondage and displays paraphilia. Mr. Yee, who in himself is similar to Christian Grey, reflects the cruel nature of war and men in power. There is control there, one that seems to be sexualized and geared towards showing dominance as security.
When considering Lust Caution, the idea of love and desire is about love being both our liberator and captor. Chia-Chi was sent to ensure that Mr. Yee is killed but instead warned him, causing her own death in the end. After Mr. Yee realized that he was caught up in an assassination attempt, he gave the orders to execute Chia Chi and her conspirators. I’ve often wondered why he never saved her if he truly loved her. Just like Brokeback Mountain it appears that love is worth more when its lost than if its allowed to burn out slowly. In the end, I understood it to be the ultimate sacrifice that all women make when faced with love or war. While many of the things they endorse are part of their own making, men’s dominance has always planted the seeds in the mind of women.
This is the type of history about desire that has been ignored and erased from textbooks. We have come to understand war as a place of death and suffering as two opposing enemies battle for power, but we hardly want to know how women’s bodies were used as battlefields. There are thousands of Chia Chi consciously, subconsciously, or forcefully made to surrender their minds and bodies for man made campaigns. Whether they were raped by soldiers in the cases of the girls and women in present-day Republic of Congo, forced into brothels during World War II, used to seduce powerful men, forced to cover their faces, or brainwashed into thinking they were breeding a pure nation; they were merely bodies used in the name of war.
After reading my take on Lust Caution, many might think that it is not a romantic film.
It is an erotic romance drama on the surface, but the deeper you dig, there is so much more to explore. I unabashedly rate Lust Caution with an A+ rating and add it to my best film list.