The opening titles of Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution situate the film in the years between 1938 and 1942 in Hong Kong. There is the World War, the espionage, the student rebellion, the lust and the caution. But those are mere structures to support one of the most moving war-time films ever made. It digs into the personal sacrifice that shapes any revolution, be it bodily or even spiritual.
It is the story of a group of enthusiastic students who start identifying with the rebellious tone of the play they put up in college and decide to take their action beyond the stage. The group’s leader, Kuang Yu Min (Wang Lee-Hom) pulls the group together and they decide to assassinate Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), who is a part of the government that has collaborated with Japanese fascist forces. The quiet and beautiful Wong Chia Chiv (Tang Wei) is chosen to seduce Mr. Yee, win his confidence so that he lets his guard down and the group can kill him. Kuang and Wong are attracted to each other, but it remains an unspoken truth, given the intensity of their project. Things go wrong and the group is forced to run away. Years later Kunag meets Wong again; he is now an official part of the secret resistance group. He introduces her to the mastermind and they decide to continue the affair where it was left off. And it does.
Perhaps this would have been a lesser film without the indescribable talent of Tang Wei. She gives a silently haunting quality to Wong, making the few words she speaks in the film the most meaningful and certainly the most powerful. Far from the wounded, but proudly upheld bodies of soldiers that occupy most war films, we see a critique of the idea that has inhabited feminist theory for a while – the woman’s body as the space to define political achievements. The interesting thing is that both sides use Wong’s body for very opposite reasons.
The resistance movement, from its amateur student stage, assumes that since Wong is the one chosen to seduce Yee, she will have to sleep with him if the affair reaches that stage. There is a poignant moment when she returns from their first date and announces that sex will be on the table the next time, only to realise that the group had hardly waited for her consent to decide that for her.
Even when she rejoins the resistance – now at a more professional, national scale – the assumptions remain the same. The only difference is that this time, she is wiser and has assumed the assumption herself.
With Yee, the affair is hardly an ordinary one. The physical violence of the intercourse is disturbing, but not as much as the comfort it gives Yee. What surprises is the emotion behind the violence that is gradually communicated. The desperation and powerlessness of Yee’s position comes through in his relationship with Wong. His actions in this very private sphere become reflective of his lack of power in the political sphere, where he may be part of the government, but it is ultimately a government that is dictated by the Japanese.
The change is Wong’s character, from an enthusiastic student looking to change the fate of China – to a broken woman is developed at a masterful pace. She finally breaks her silence about the abuse in the quietest way imaginable – in a moment asking for hysteria, Ang Lee exercises commendable control and the film is all the superior for it. As far as Wong is concerned, it is as if the two groups work in tandem with each other; the resistance group expects and allows a violent sexual relationship to go on while Yee delivers. They are both as guilty of battering her body.
In the climactic moment of the film, we see that Wong and Yee actually serve the same purpose in their respective circles. They are both dictated, used people, who are, in ultimate analysis, absolutely alone – as is made very literal in the final move to the jewelry shop when Wong looks around for her fellow conspirators, but finds every post unoccupied. Yee’s group too knew of Wong’s affiliations, but they never said anything, allowing him to face the risk when it comes. And when that realisation comes through, her ‘loyalty’ suddenly enters an undefinable space – from political to personal. ‘Her people’, in that moment, are not the resistance group, but one more like her – whose life is endangered for the cause. The irony is that the two causes are at complete odds with each other.
It has been sixty years and more since the World War, and yet most of us (and that includes most filmmakers) haven’t been able to shed the most simplistic good guy-bad guy binary. Even the most celebrated films finally boil down to, or even cash in on the sufferings of the Jews, the atrocities of concentration camps or the eternal Red scare. A bit of reflection beyond these hyperbolic tendencies is rare and desirable – and Ang Lee has achieved that and more with this one. Leaving even Brokeback Mountain – his Academy Awarder- miles behind, Lee has done his bit to change war films, and maybe even films in general.