The title Lust, Caution has a double meaning that doesn’t carry over to English. The Chinese characters for “lust” and “caution” can also be read as “color” and “ring”, or colorful ring, which alludes to a literal element of the film’s ending. In English, “lust” and “caution” simply refer to the pairing of sex and secretiveness, two obvious factors in a story about a spy sleeping with her target. Closer inspection, though, reveals a third interpretation, one which addresses the audience, many of whom won’t realize that the title is, in fact, speaking to them directly. It’s a warning of sorts, a suggestion. Lust, Caution is a troublingly sexy movie, troubling because it depicts eroticism in circumstances that don’t clearly delineate between right and wrong, or wanted and unwanted sex. Ang Lee dares the audience to acknowledge desire in situations where that acknowledgement may in fact be damning. “This is an erotic film,” the title warns. “Be careful”. Lust, caution.
Erotic media rely on sex scenes, of course, but also strong buildup, and the buildup scenes, here, set the stage for moral provocations. Hong Kong student and amateur actress Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) has been recruited by a naive group of insurgents to seduce and assassinate one of the top agents in the Jingwei puppet government of China, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-wai). Originating as a political theatre troupe, the inexperienced rebels put their star, Chia Chi, to the ultimate test. She’s their tool. These machinations muddle her motivation and sense of purpose, problematizing the ensuing eroticism. Her entire involvement is based on her desire to please the leader of the insurgents, Kuang Yumin (Wang Leehom), who she has an obvious crush on. In other words, her sexual relationships all come about through emotional vulnerability and coercion.
It’s not clear if Chi is really into Mr. Yee or just doing a great acting job. On the other hand, Mr. Yee radiates palpable deire. Their first time alone showcases Tang Wei and Tony Leung’s simmering chemistry. It’s all polite conversation and coy innuendo sent back and forth through some of the most intense fuck-me-eyes ever caught on camera. At first Chi lays these morsels of suggestion down for Yee to pick up, like a conversational trail of Reese’s Pieces. Eventually, though, she’s no longer leading him anywhere. They’re just talking. Therein lies Chi’s problem. She gets too into character. Mr. Yee turns out to be the only one that wants Chi for Chi. Her means become her ends. She wants him. The question of why she wants him, though, forms the morally precarious context of their entire affair. Consensual sex or not, there’s cause for concern over what drives it. This is all besides the fact that the man she forms a connection with is a war criminal. He treats her with the most humanity while participating in one of the most inhuman regimes. What moral sense are we to make of all this?
Chi clearly enjoys the sex on a deeper level than she’s supposed to. The pair have an ineffable connection that transcends casual relations and pushes them to their physical limits, exemplified by how brutal it can be. The first time they sleep together could be accurately described as rape. Chi tries to softly seduce Mr. Yee only for him to slam her around the room and whip her with his belt. But these sex scene tells a story, too; you can’t watch it without noticing how it evolves. At one point, Mr. Yee uses his belt to tie Chi’s hands, but then, in a moment of reflection, he removes it as if second guessing his cruelty, as if to let her know she’s actually safe, that this is all in the service of pleasure. Afterwards, Chi lays in her bed, shaken but smiling, and the audience has to do the messy work of determining what, if anything, they saw was consensual,
There’s perhaps no better way to map the contrasts in Lust, Caution than to compare these love scenes with the opening scene. As the movie starts, a mahjong game is underway in an immaculate estate. The wives of some of the highest Chinese collaborators trade gossip over the feverish clacking of tiles. They all have status in the back of their minds. In one sense they’re playing a game with friends. In a much realer sense, they’re testing each other, looking for weaknesses, grasping for leverage. Lee captures this scene with rabid intensity, assailing us with a flurry of insert shots and ersatz angles. It’s beautiful, but mechanically constructed. Lee slows the pacing down in the love scenes and favors a fluid camera as opposed to cutting, creating a space for “real” feelings. In the historical moment of the film and, in a broader sense, life, few relationships exist that don’t contain some amount of artifice. Conversely, Chi unlocks her true self through her duplicitous acts with Mr. Yee. And it’s these moments of absolute selfhood mixed with moral ambiguity that the movie confronts us with. Lust, Caution doesn’t examine falsehoods, but uncomfortable truths. | Nic Champion
Lust, Caution comes as a special edition blu-ray with a commentary by Eddy von Mueller and a making-of featurette.