Lust, Caution (2007), or Where Is My Real Life?

29 07 2009

Americans need to step outside the box. American filmmakers can be the leaders in innovation when we want to be, but it’s always the wrong kind of innovation. Rather than coming together as a unified force against censorship and the persecution of creativity, they often come together to push the envelope in special effects and computer-generated talking robots. I know how ridiculous it is in other countries, and I realize that the US is one of the leaders in the battle to fight the censors, but I push because I love America, and I really want to see ratings like NC-17 not be a fucking death-curse for genuinely potent movies. People know the only way a movie gets NC-17 is by having graphic sex in it, so most major theaters will either refuse to play it, or at their best they’ll throw it in the smallest theater possible to avoid detection. Theaters still seem to think that average people are really willing to sit through what they think is a musty, dusty, artsy-fartsy foreign drama just for five minutes of tits, and basically prevent the film from making any decent bit of business. It’s a disturbing fact that today’s film, Lust, Caution, the most recent Ang Lee film to date, was shown in no more than 143 theaters across the nation because of its sex scenes. It’s about so much more than that, but as far as AMC is concerned, it’s a 150 minute circle jerk.

Wong Chai Chi is your average college student in Hong Kong during the late 30s. Shy, beautiful, and intelligent, she is truly your average person until she is invited to join a drama club. This drama club made up of her peers has somewhat of an ulterior motive, as they are overtly patriotic and political. They ask her very plainly to pose as a spy within the social circles of a high-ranking agent they want to kill in the occupational Japanese force within Hong Kong. She is shocked, naturally, but she sees the problems that the Japanese have caused during their occupation, and decides to help the group. She changes her name to Ms. Mak, a well-to-do housewife whose husband is away on business. The, after an ingenious plan to meet and sneak into the agent’s wife’s circle of friends, she succeeds in being invited over to play Mah-Jong. The agent, a Mr. Yee, notices her radiant beauty, her youthful but respectful attitude, and her lack of a present husband, and decides he wants her for a mistress. Mortified, she is torn between blowing her cover and the frightening aspect of sleeping with this married enemy agent. Their relationship will take many strange forms in the coming months and years as a bond forms that must eventually be tested when her superiors wish for her to carry out her orders.

This is such an intense movie. I was struck dumb by the end of this roller-coaster. Ang Lee, in much the same way he did with Brokeback Mountain, makes a film where the pacing is deliberately slow to create something that exists beyond the drab confines of the 90 minute structure. Like exquisite Noh theater, this isn’t the kind of thing that needs rushing. Lee crafts an espionage thriller two and a half hours long that feels like only 45 minutes. I was on the edge of my seat during Mr. Yee’s intense interrogations of Ms. Mak and her manufactured personal life.

The characters are so engrossing! Nothing is ever really spoken about character or personality; we instead glimpse their character through their actions. Ms. Mak is not as innocent and unassuming as it may at first seem, Mr. Yee is perhaps not the monster we assume he is, and the Chinese Resistance might be just as bad as the Japanese Occupational force in terms of sheer unscrupulousness. Everyone has an agenda, even if it’s not overtly political, and its fascinating to watch people’s lives and finding more about them without hearing a single pertinent conversation. It’s the beauty of life behind closed doors, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

The acting was superb. Tony Leung makes Mr. Yee so vile and yet peculiarly vulnerable that I can’t think of an adequate word for him. He’s a character that inspires a very definite hatred, but also a sense of loneliness and a deep desire for companionship. It’s a confusing character, but I suppose if this movie-a-day has shown me anything about human nature, it is the dichotomy of modern man. Joan Chen plays Mr. Yee’s buttoned-up wife Yee Tai-Tai. She has little room to maneuver around in this love story, ironically, but she makes the most of it. She plays her role with that far-away sadness one sees normally in a Merchant-Ivory picture. She is the other woman, in a sense, the one shoved aside for a woman younger and more willing than her. She is shoved aside by both her husband and the film itself to make room for Lust, Caution’s star, though. Wei Tang is a force of nature in her first ever film appearance. She is a wonder, and her youth and beauty only adds melancholy to this dramatic tale of woe and wartime espionage. She exerts herself emotionally and physically onto the film like someone who has felt real and utter pain in their lives. It’s a genuine and moving performance, and I’m glad that she has recently moved to Hong Kong, since China’s film industry has blacklisted her due to the steamy sexual content in this film.

Yes, blacklisted. For sex. That’s all. The one thing that all of us due yet are afraid to talk about in the public spotlight almost destroyed a young up-and-comer’s career. I refuse to acknowledge the sex scenes in this movie on the grounds that they are tasteful and revealing of the characters, and in no way gratuitous or exploitative, which means to me that they shouldn’t be singled out of this rich tapestry of a film just because of a couple of nipples. But for just sex this movie was given an NC-17 rating and a young actress’s career was almost derailed because of a natural bodily function. Let me remind you that sex is the only reason that this film has such a rating. There is no gratuitous violence, foul language, or terrifying imagery. It’s a film that deserves no such branding, but the MPAA loves using sex as an excuse to give the final kiss of death to any art film not willing to compromise.
Lust, Caution is a wonderful movie that was tragically overlooked at the time of its release. I think it is one of Ang Lee’s finest films, and it should be sought out wherever the NC-17 version is available (that EXCLUDES Blockbuster). See it once, and you’ll understand it’s fragile beauty. I give it 9 1/2 150 minute circle-jerks out of 10! A high recommendation!

Tomorrow I attack myself with Black X-Mas! But before I do, let me give you a quick list of films that came out in 2007 that were only rated R, which meant their release was as wide as the day is long:

300

Alpha Dog

Primeval

The Hitcher

The Abandoned

The Number 23

Reno 911: Miami

-Black Snake Moan

-Zodiac

-Dead Silence

-I Think I Love My Wife

-Reign Over Me

-Shooter

-The Lookout

-The Reaping

-The Hoax

-Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters

-Pathfinder

-Perfect Stranger

-Slow Burn

-Fracture

-Vacancy

-The Condemned

-Georgia Rule

-Bug

-Knocked Up

-Mr. Brooks

-A Mighty Heart

-Talk To Me

-Sunshine

-September Dawn

-War

-Death Seantence

-Halloween

-3:10 to Yuma

-The Brothers Solomon

-Shoot ’em Up

-The Brave One

-In The Valley of Elah

-Good Luck Chuck

-Resident Evil: Extinction

-Feast of Love

-The Kingdom

-The Darjeeling Limited

-The Heartbreak Kid

-Michael Clayton

-We Own the Night

-30 Days of Night

-Gone Baby Gone

-Rendition

-Things We Lost in the Fire

-American Gangster

-Lions For Lambs

-No Country For Old Men

-P2

-Love in the Time of Cholera

-The Mist

-Awake

-Atonement

-Charlie Wilson’s War

-Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

-Alien Vs. Predator: Requiem

-There Will Be Blood

-The Orphanage

-Eastern Promises (!)

-Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (!!)

-Saw IV (!!!)

-Superbad (!!!!)

-I Know Who Killed Me (!!!!!)

-Captivity (!!!!!!)

Hannibal Rising (!!!!!!!)

-Hostel Part 2 (!!!!!!!!)

-28 Weeks Later (!!!!!!!!!!)

-The Hills Have Eyes 2 (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

Here are the subsequent NC-17 counterparts for 2007, which saw almost ZERO screen time:

-Descent (edited to R)

-Grindhouse (edited to R)

-Hatchet (edited to R)

-Lust, Caution (edited to R)

-Frontiers

Amazing, huh?

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