'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, November 02, 2007

Film Notes: Lust, Caution 

Last week, I snuck out and watched this movie, or, to be more accurate, I watched about 2 hours of its 2 hour and 37 minute running time. Now, I will be the first to admit that it is hard to properly review a film that you haven't watched in its entirety. I have seen quite a number of films that were hard to engage until a crystalizing moment, a brief scene that placed all that had come before into a compelling narrative context.

For example, the obsessive eroticism of In the Realm of the Senses acquires a powerful social meaning as the result of one very short scene, probably not longer than 5 seconds, in which the male protagonist, Ichida, is observed walking towards the camera along a rail line in which Japanese troops are being transported to, probably, Manchuria, by a train moving in the opposite direction. If you miss the scene, you miss the allegorical message that the sexually voracious affair of Ichida and Abe is a withdrawal from the militarism that defines 1930s Japan, a conscious refusal to conform to the violent perversity of this society, although, predictably, this perversity eventually infects their relationship as well.

But, somehow, I doubt that there is such a scene in the final 37 to 40 minutes of Lust, Caution. In Lust, Tang Wei plays a young woman in the turbulent southern China of the late 1930s, Wong Chia Chi (someone, if you will, on the receiving end of the violence perpetrated by the soldiers who departed Japan in Realm), a young woman who, upon arrival in Hong Kong, joins a nationalistic theatrical group that branches out into espionage and assasination.

The target of the group, a collaborator named Mr. Yee, performed with typical subtlety and restraint by Tony Leung, takes a fancy to Wong (undercover as Mrs. Mak, the wife of an import-export businessman), and, well, you can sort of guess the rest. After an attempt to kill Yee in Hong Kong fails, she subsequently encounters both Yee and one of her old comrades in occupied Shanghai, where she, with the assistance of an old comrade, makes contact with Yee, and initiates a sexual relationship with Yee, a relationship that is, by turns, cold and brutal, to finish what she started in Hong Kong.

While the film is critically acclaimed in some quarters, I found it to be lethargic, with the most compelling character insights occuring during the sex scenes that resulted in an NC-17 rating. Such a shame, because the performances of Tang Wei and Tony Leung are first rate, but both find themselves trapped in an otherwise visually uninspired narrative. Much of the period setting of the film in Hong Kong and Shanghai is presented through what appears to be poor quality matte and computer generated graphics.

Furthermore, the attempt to develop character insight through interiors suffers greatly in contrast to a film like Flowers of Shanghai. Perhaps, it is unfair, but one can't help comparing this work by Ang Lee against the masterworks of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, films, like Flowers, that address similar themes in a very different, more revealing, elliptical way. Both Lust and Flowers can be legitimately summarized as ones about two people unable to love one another because of the internalized constraints of social convention.

Indeed, I frequently had the aggravating sensation that I was much more curious about what happened off-screen in Lust. For example, upon leaving Hong Kong for Shanghai, Wong Chia Chi lives in poverty during the Japanese occupation. Yet, we see little of it. She reestablishes contact with the resistance in Shanghai, but, again, we observe nothing of it, except for reports to her handler, one of the members of the Hong Kong theatre troop who also made his way to Shanghai.

Of course, the film is based upon an Eileen Chang story, so it is possible that I just don't relate to the story itself. Even so, isn't it a reflection of Ang Lee's skill (or lack thereof) that I found myself distracted from what was happening on screen to what may have happened off of it? Now, some directors are actually encouraging you to do so, but that's not the case here.

I have to admit, I guess that I don't get the critical acclaim associated with Ang Lee as a director. I have seen three of his films, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution, and I have only been impressed by Brokeback, although it, too, is flawed, especially by, not surprisingly, Lee's reliance on Hallmark card mountain visuals. Of all the directors that have come from Hong Kong and Taiwan to the US, I find his work the least impressive, but the most adaptable to the marketing requirements of the Hollywood studio system.


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