Image: Sky Editorial Asset Centre

‘Lust, Caution’: an erotic espionage and undoubted masterpiece

Lust, Caution was released in 2007, directed by the famous Ang Lee. Based on the novel by Eileen Chang, it is set in Hong Kong and Shanghai during the Second World War, when they were occupied by Japan. In the film, a group of university students plans to assassinate Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), a special agent working for the Japanese. Under their plan, the protagonist Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei), pretends to be the wife of a wealthy businessman. She inserts herself into his social circle and lures him into a honey trap. Their romantic relationship gradually grows, and Wong painfully struggles between her affection for Mr. Yee and her loyalty to the espionage agency.

Although Lust, Caution was highly honored around the globe, it was controversial because of the explicit sex scenes. Only a cut version could be released in some countries, and it was rated NC-17 in the United States. Yet, the sex scenes are deeply impressive as they portray the relationship between Wong and Mr. Yee vividly. In their first sex scene, Mr. Yee. knocks Wong against the wall and ties her up. The one-sided physical violence depicts his complete control in their relationship and the intelligence mission.

The chemistry between the editing and script brings the audience into the world of spying, full of mystery and deception

Later, they love each other, but their sexual relationship is not consensual. Mr. Yee once squeezes Wong’s body, so her upper body is pressed to her own legs. Wong can hardly breathe as she is under the forces of both Mr. Yee and herself, instead of simply being hurt by Mr. Yee. It conveys a strong sense of oppression, symbolising Wong’s conflicting emotions. She acknowledges Mr. Yee’s sexual violence and the inappropriateness of loving him. However, she cannot stop herself from doing so, and needs to painfully suppress her fondness for him. The explicitness of the sex scene creates a powerful visual impact, thus hitting the audiences’ emotions like a strong punch with a mixture of romance, brutality and misery.

Apart from the sex, the scenes about playing ‘mahjong’ are remarkable. Mahjong is a traditional tile-based game in China. As mentioned in the film, it was the only entertainment of the high-ranking officers’ wives at that time since they stayed at home and knew nothing about their husbands’ political missions. Wong always plays mahjong with the other wives in order to befriend them. Most of the shots about playing mahjong are short. They switch between the tiles of each wife, their movements of giving out the tiles and facial expression change rapidly. At the same time, they chat casually about their favourite restaurants and textiles.

On one hand, the fast-cutting shots create a strong sense of tension which comes from both the game and their husbands’ hidden roles. On the other hand, the irrelevant conversation hides their actual characters and shows how hypocritical they are. The chemistry between the editing and script brings the audience into the world of spying, full of mystery and deception.

In such a tragedy, people’s emotions and minds ‘fall’ as well

Lust, Caution is undoubtedly a masterpiece, with outstanding cinematography, editing and script. More importantly, it is a good novel adaptation which delivers the key element of the original story, merging the characters’ experiences with the historical background. The movie depicts the fall of Hong Kong and Shanghai in the war. There are corpses everywhere, starvation, and puppet government ruling the cities. In such a tragedy, people’s emotions and minds ‘fall’ as well. The university students fall into narrow-minded patriotism, and Wong falls into abnormal love for Mr. Yee. The more she is hurt, the more she loves him. Falling into the struggle between the conflicting identities as a lover and spy, she loses her true self at last.

The theme of falling will never be outdated. Nowadays, there are people leaving their beloved one because of war, or marrying somebody they do not like because of poverty or inequality. Under wars, sudden political changes or suppression, we are all nobodies who can control and decide nothing. Therefore, Lust, Caution is definitely a great movie that impresses the audience with pain and anxiety, and ends with a touch of sadness and hopelessness.


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