Tainted Libido Torture, With Adam and Eve in Old Shanghai
By Prairie Miller
The Lust, Caution Movie Review
A Juliet if not Romeo steamy erotic spy thriller, Ang Lee's Lust Caution crosses party lines to contemplate sexual betrayal laced with toxic unrequited desire. Its 1942 China under Japanese occupation, and Lust Caution burrows into the sinister machinations of that country's own version of the Vichy's collaborationist government revisited in countless Nazi noir dirges for that disheartening moment in time. Lee's obsession here with sexual politics is just that, historically hermetic to the point of near perceptual asphyxiation. But his peek into the tainted libido of a torturer on the government payroll as the director got just a little too consumed with spying up close and personal on his bodies of choice in heat, was overzealous enough to slap Brokeback Mountain's once more discreet Lee, with an NC-17 by incidentally.
This delicately layered, exquisitely photographed mood piece plays out as two parallel tales that ultimately fatefully mesh. Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) is a politically idealistic student who joins a band of subversive youth planning sabotage against the puppet government. Chi is assigned a fake identity as wealthy woman of leisure Mrs. Mak, so that she can infiltrate the circle of similarly idle politicians' wives and kill notorious laconic executioner, Mr. Yee. As a grueling initiation rite, Chi must first lose her virginity to the only member of the cell who's ever had sex, experience he picked up from hookers, the reasoning being that Chi should look like she knows what's she's doing when luring the monster into bed.
With the dastardly deeds of Mr. Yee kept nearly as secretive to the audience as everyone in the movie, and the Japanese invaders seemingly out to lunch and just about nowhere in sight for the duration, there's pretty much nobody around to portray as out and out detestable except, surprise, the women. While the masses starve in the streets, the self-indulgent ladies of privilege relieve their boredom while their men are away, with endless rounds of mahjong, shopping, and whining over a lack of trendy stockings and sufficient carats in diamond rings these days.
After a number of frustrating years pretending she's part of their elite circle and stalking Mr. Yee, Chi/Mrs. Mak finally corners the cad of few words in a secret lovers' den. The predator/prey thing starts to switch around and get a bit kinky, as Yee beats and rapes the young woman, who submits because she's on a mission. As the brutal affair continues, Yee remains suspicious of her motives, keeping one eye open at all times, including during the heat of those raunchy money shots.
But as the doubting sexual devourer starts to relax and morph into a slightly kinder, gentler executioner lover, Chi, unbelievably, gets infatuated with the guy. Lust, Caution could do with a subheading like, sleeping with the enemy without getting your hair chopped off.
So what we have here once again, is the weaker sex ready to betray their country for a brute, not to mention falling in love with someone who has raped, strangled and beaten you. On the other hand, you can never tell what women will do when presented with an aphrodisiac like diamonds, a temptation too tough to resist apparently, even from a scoundrel. Adam and Eve in old Shanghai.
2 1/2 stars
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