Lust Caution (China, 2007, Ang Lee)
As I am almost wholly ignorant of what there is to watch these days unless you bring a film to my attention, I had no idea that Lust, Caution existed, never mind that it is three years old and by Ang Lee. I remember very much appreciating the emotional sensibility of The Ice Storm (1997). Who didn't enjoy Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)? That one took my CGI cherry and very few of the few CGI orgies I've attended since have titilated me nearly as much. And Brokeback Mountain (2005) was not just a big deal for its gay-positive cultural significance. It was a well-told love story. The fact that Hulk (2002) didn't quite work only raises the director's stature in my mind as the entire action genre is unattractive to me and the comic book spin-off subset even less so. So, I like Lee.
And so, I like Lust, Caution. I like it a lot. This tale of a would-be Mata Hari who fatally fails to fulfill her patriotic duty is simultaneously successful as an espionage thriller and erotic drama, Indeed, it is the psychological intensity of the two personalities as they become increasingly entwined that fills the spy plot with excitement. The explicit love-making shown is no doubt artistically engaging in its own right, but it is in no way gratuitous because the sexual tension between the characters and the suspense in the plot are absolutely the same thing.
Hence, a dogmatic feminist response to Lust, Caution might object to the depiction of a woman being subjected to such male domination. But it is not that she doesn't resist him, even defy him and to some extent compel him to submit to her. It is that ultimately she fails to win the fight, her resistance proves futile; just as the domestic resistence movement to the foreign invader proves futile in the end. The power of the man, terrible Quisling that he is, this is the power of the conqueror that triumphs over her individually in the form of profound lust and over the entire nation in the form of military occupation.
This setting is presented with considerable visual style in Lust, Caution. I cannot judge how accurate the costumes and so forth are for the period, but it feels to me that there is an authenticity to the street scenes and the like that is achieved by way of certain cinematographic choices. In particular, the lighting throughout the film tends to be less bright than what we are accustomed to living in today, or could this simply be a genre determination, the film tapping into some Noir?
I suppose there will always be puritans who believe that anything sexually direct is necessarily smut. Ang Lee is definitely not the director for them then. He is the antithesis of Stanley Kubrick who is cold, detached, rational, ironic and basically looking at any slice of life through an asexual lens. Lee is hot, engaged, emotional, sincere and fundamentally looking at any slice of life through a sexual lens. Lust, Caution is as effective as it is because this lens is focused on a slice of life that is sexual subject matter in the first place. That this sexual subject matter entails worthwhile characters in an interesting historical circumstance with serious themes about the nature of human desire and political loyalty is due to the sophistication of Lee's lens.