Ang Lee's 2007 political romantic drama Lust, Caution is a beautiful, contemplative and breathtakingly tragic story about an undercover resistance fighter in World War II-era China, who begins to form a relationship with the man she is meant to kill - a collaborator with the Japanese. By presenting a hauntingly beautiful and poetic tale of a woman torn between who she is and who she is pretending to be, with tremendous stakes in the balance, Lee's film explores the ideas of performance and identity as a means to demonstrate her nationalism. Wong's character is presented as an actor, first and foremost, from her humble beginnings in nationalist plays to embodying a single entity that does not know what it truly is. The mise-en-scene that Ang Lee presents in Lust, Caution is a testament to performances, preparation, and the identities we embody in order to fulfill personal convictions. Wong as a character must use her sexuality as a performance as well, arming it as just another acting tool, until it, like her own performances, become indistinguishable from reality.
As a film ostensibly about performances (whether theatrical or through espionage), acting is one of the most essential elements to Lust, Caution. Tang Wei, playing Wong Chia Chi, the central character, fills the character with an incredibly compelling duplicitousness that extends even to herself. Wei's performance is demure, soft, and exuberant, living a life not unlike the persona that she puts on to infiltrate Yee's life (Mak Tai Tai); her hugely expressive eyes reveal a deep well of understanding beyond her years in one moment and innocent uncertainty the next. Wei's performance, as most everyone else's, is restrained and polite, always presenting an alluring distance for Yee to chase.
Performing is an innate part of Wong's nature; to that end, she becomes incredibly confused and torn regarding whether her feelings for Yee are part of the cover or what she really feels. This is exemplified in the scene where Yee asks her to sing a song in Chinese, to which she puts on a full performance of a small ballad about love. Yee and Wong study each other with their eyes as the scene continues, showing the intensity by which he was wormed his way into her heart. This scene is a microcosm of the film's treatment of performance and its connection with reality. In this way, Wong submits to somewhat anti-feminist appraisals of her own identity and connection to others; she abandons her civic duty and her loyalties for the sake of the submissive relationship she has with Yee (Lee, 2010). This leads to the aforementioned fatal misstep of failing to assassinate him, and ultimately to her death and the deaths of her compatriots.
As with many Ang Lee films, the cinematography of Lust, Caution is top-notch; director of photography Rodrigo Prieto injects the tremendously steady frame with a great deal of color and diffusion; the majority of the film nearly plays out like the old Hollywood movies that Wong is moved to tears by. At the same time, this steadiness is directly contrasted with dramatic handheld camera work during some of the more harrowing scenes of violence, including the resistance fighters' killing of a subordinate who catches them. This starkness and plainness in showing every bit of the brutality of the man's murder foreshadows the same frankness to be seen in the love scenes. Skin tones are presented with a soft clarity that lends each scene a latent eroticism, not limiting the sexuality of the film to its creatively choreographed and shot sex scenes. Camerawork is almost always very straightforward and meticulously framed, with steady pans and swings throughout. Much of the film is shot in slightly high angles over the characters faces, demonstrating both their secretive nature and their uncertainty regarding what is going to happen to them. Each medium shot and close-up of the actor's face is painted with very soft colors, with slightly muted saturation to lend even the brightest clothes and scenes a slight darkness and emptiness, evidence of the performance Wong is putting on.
From her theatrical preferences (she suggests Ibsen's A Doll's House early in the film as the play her drama group should produce) to her dress and her treatment of her life as a spy, it is suggested that at least a small part of her wants her life to be like the American movies she watches. By following this dangerous but erotically charged affair with Yee, Wong is allowed to explore her sexuality and live out, effectively, a metatextual romance with Cary Grant.
The love scenes are a hallmark of Prieto's work in the film, and all three demonstrate different emotional states and narrative thrusts throughout the work. The first sex scene is dispassionate, workmanlike; Wong must sleep with one of her fellow resistance fighters so that she is not a virgin anymore, to keep up the cover story when she plans to sleep with Yee. The scene takes place at night and is in darkness, with only some light panning across her face. There is no incidental music, and the shots either take place from a passionless distance, or with a closeup on Wong's uncomfortable expression. Only the back of Liang's face is seen as he thrusts, demonstrating the scene being all about her and the pragmatic nature of the coupling. This is also emphasized by all of the action happening under thick covers, illustrating Wong's shame and lack of enthusiasm for the act. The scene then cuts to early morning, where the room is somewhat brighter from sunlight, but muted. Liang is on bottom now, and his face is still somewhat obscured from view by Wong's arm. Whereas Liang was reticent about the act, he is now enjoying it, giving Wong a joking "I think you're getting the hang of it." Smash cutting to Wong alone in her bed, she is still displeased and irritated. Now fully naked - the first time the audience sees her full body - she opens her door to see beautiful pink flowers just outside her windowsill, visually cementing her status as a woman.
The following sex scenes, all of which happen with Mr. Yee after their sexual relationship has been solidified, are not timid and boring like with Liang, but passionate and often violent. Whereas Wong was dispassionate, she experiences extremes of emotion as she makes love to Mr. Yee. The first time they have sex, Yee violently throws her against a wall, undresses her, and enters her from behind. Instead of the dispassionate discomfort, she is openly shocked and fearful, then exhilarated. This follows in the subsequent sex scenes, which are filmed with saturated flesh tones and wandering, intimate medium shots and closeups of faces and body parts. Occasionally, we get many shots of the various experimental couplings that Yee and Wong attempt, which are as experimental and varied as they come - this emphasizes Yee's desperate need for new experiences and control, as well as the dramatic and violent entrance into the world of sexuality that Wong is not prepared for. In the third sex scene, as Wong begins to bring Yee to climax, she notices a perfect attempt to kill him, fulfilling her mission, as his gun is within arm's reach of her. However, at the last minute, she backs out, finally admitting to the complex sexual and emotional relationship she has with Yee.
The editing of this scene (and the film as a whole) lends itself to its very theatrical, romantic nature. The bookend device presented in the film shows us the climax of the movie, in which Wong makes a clandestine phone call to the cafe. Without the context of the scenes beforehand, and Wong's ingenue-like costume (with its wide-brimmed hat) evokes the same kinds of Golden Age movies that Wong herself is in love with. By acting out this role of spy in the film that is her life, she gets to live the movies that she loves. Yee is her Cary Grant, and she wants it to remain that way. Many scenes are cut off deliberately before their natural end, creating a jarring effect that lends a dreamlike air to the film. Shots are allowed to linger, with very few cuts, making those cuts that make their presence known meaningful.
The score by Alexandre Desplat is one of the most critically acclaimed aspects of the film, and its Western classicism helps to cement the film's mood, already established by the cinematography as elegant and still. Desplat features very heavy use of strings to create slow, somber melodies, which are mostly European-influenced (though Wong's theme has its own Chinese influences in melody and rhythm). This score showcases the East's slow integration with the West, also shown through the increasingly Western clothing worn by the characters - as it pertains to Wong, it demonstrates her Western-influenced outlook.
In conclusion, Lust, Caution is a fantastically elegant and deliberate film about the dilemma between the political and the ethical, the performance and the real, and the sexual and platonic. Wong Chia Chi, in dedicating her life to performance, suddenly finds herself in too deep, sacrificing the ostensible needs of her partners for her own desire for romanticism and danger. The editing, sound, mise-en-scene, and performances all work together to tell one of the most bizarre and grotesque love stories in film history. The erotically charged nature of the film, as well as its extended sex scenes, gave the film an NC-17 rating, which later defined the film as unlucky couples began to sustain injuries attempting to replicate the creative couples shown by Wong and Yee.
Lee, Ang (dir). (2007). Lust, caution. Perf. Tony Leung, Tang Wei, Joan Chen. Focus Features.
Lee, Haiyan. (2010). Enemy under my skin: Eileen Chang's Lust, Caution and the politics of
transcendence. PMLA 125(3): 640-656.