Ang Lee seems to have a thing for short story adaptations and violent sexual encounters. While I respect much of Lee’s previous work and believe he often possesses masterful vision, Lust, Caution is a sadistic, repulsive disaster.
Lee takes great liberties with this pseudo-drama portraying an amateur conspiracy against a prominent Japanese collaborator in 1940s occupied China. Stylistically mirroring acclaimed director Wong Kar-Wai (and featuring one of Kar-Wai’s notorious leads, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), Lee sets his so-called period piece in a generic bustling, dirty city that has no more resemblance to Shanghai than Paris. Tang Wei plays Tang Chia Chi, also known as Mrs. Mak, the lure for Chiu-Wai’s Mr. Yee. At first, her role is simply to act as a distraction while her deeply nationalistic fellow acting students find a way to assassinate this top-ranking Japanese official. But quickly, the twisted affair becomes serious, leading Chia Chi into dangerous territory. Unlike the female spies before her, her ruse goes undetected by her lover, and against all reason and rational emotion, Chia Chi finds herself falling for her brooding, dictator-like companion.
In addition to disturbingly graphic sexual escapades, the relationship is grounded in Yee’s abusive violence against Chia Chi. After being brutally raped during their first secret liaison, Chia Chi must fulfill her duty as a spy and go back for more. A range of interpretations might explain Yee’s behavior (testing the liability of potential mates in an unstable wartime environment, a hardcore S&M fetish), but I find no excuse for it all the same. While acknowledging a spectrum of eroticism and sexual desire, that we are to believe that any young woman would fall for this violently perverse man—let alone Chia Chi’s educated and otherwise fearless character—is insulting. While the lines between Chia Chi’s mission and personal feelings do blur, director Lee’s perpetuation of the rape culture myth that women will fall in love with their sexual assailants is revolting.
Maybe I should find it redeeming that Chia Chi’s armpits remain unshaven, much like my own. Perhaps I’m supposed to sympathize with high-ranking public figures who find it nearly impossible to retain love in the midst of being power-hungry sociopaths. Conceivably, I could be satisfied with the idea that love and sex are deeply complex. Yee is a distressingly sympathetic character at times, and that complexity is one of the movie’s few strengths. But I have no reassurance that this is a freak accident of a film, as Ang Lee is once again with the writing and production team that brought us Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon _and _Brokeback Mountain. This isn’t a random bad writer who roped a talented director into a project. This is a complete devastation of art and integrity.
This film should come with a trauma advisory in addition to its NC-17 rating. At a tedious two and a half hours, _Lust, Caution _ended my relationship with Ang Lee, whose previous work I found beautiful and reflective. But there is nothing appealing or even civil about violent rape, or the pretense that sexual violence is a prelude to love.