11 January 2008

C'era una Volta l'East

Intesi ch'a così fatto tormento
enno dannati i peccator carnali,
che la ragion sommettono al talento

"I learned that those who undergo this torment
are damned because they sinned within the flesh,
subjecting reason to the rule of lust."

- Inferno, Canto V; Dante Alighieri

So, Ang Lee's latest cinematographic effort: Lust, Caution. It's probably a good sign that the title annoyed me more than anything else about the movie, although I'm not quite sure why. Perhaps it just sounds like the many foreign shops, restaurants and t-shirt slogans of the "pick two random English words and slot them together" genre. Of course, the film is about lust and caution - both in tandem and separate from each other and of course, it is a literal translation from the original Chinese Se, jie; even Wiki agrees that the translation is a bit off (ah, that takes me back to my first year when I had to deal with the joys of translation loss and translation gain). As for what I would have called the film, I would have to think.

I have seen two other Ang Lee films: Brokeback Mountain and The Ice Storm; I quite liked the former and I used to count the latter among my top 10 all-time favourites although I haven't seen it for a while (out of sight, out of mind, in this case, rather than absence makes the heart grow fonder). On the surface, gay cowboys in Wyoming (?), marital-tardery in 1970s New England and a group of students-turned-resistance-fighters in 1940s Japanese-occupied China seem pretty different, but certain themes run through them all: unhappy marriages, lonely or isolated characters, failures to communicate (whether through lack of courage, desire or ability), a young or naive n00b-type character who learns the ropes, anguish, regret, loyalty - the usual...

I hate to ruin a story, especially a story that is as well told and well played out as Lust, Caution, but gorgeous, naive Wong Chia Chi meets a group of wannabe resistance fighters masquerading as drama students in Hong Kong in 1938 and life can never be the same again. Her turn in the play they put on leads to a standing ovation from the audience who all proclaim their loyalty to China and how great China is. The success goes to the group leader Kuang's head and he decides they should start aiming higher. He also fancies the lacy knickers off Wong and she clearly likes him back but neither acts on these feelings.

The gang decide to assassinate Mr Yee, a big political figure and Japanese-collaborator. They also decide that they will do this by getting Wong to use her Acting Skills (and no, this isn't reminiscent of Team America...): she becomes friends with Mr Yee's boring wife Mrs Yee (whose main role is to sit around drinking tea, shopping and playing mah jong with her girlfriends, gossiping and chattering away mindlessly). Soon, though, it transpires that Mr Yee takes a fancy to Wong and before long, he takes her out to dinner as is proper in such situations. They have a pleasant, intimate conversation (the only one of the film) and she comes very close to luring him back to her apartment where the Famous Five are waiting to murder him (cue some comic interludes as they scramble to "hide" when they think Wong and Mr Yee are returning...).

Sadly, though, Mr Yee just can't quite trust folks so he and the trouble and strife head back to Shanghai where it is safer. Three years later... The gang have all gone their separate ways and Wong is back at university, not a happy bunny, not least because they make her learn Japanese, which she finds marginally better than moping around at her aunt's house. Then: surprise! Along comes Kuang who admits that their earlier forays into resistance fighting were a bit naive and childish but that he's now hooked up with some bigger fish and even though he hasn't seen her in three years, he wants to drag her back to the political intrigue, stress and drama of that summer...

She agrees and before long is able to become Mr Yee's mistress. The promised lust had been building up for so long, by this point that it certainly was a real release when they got down to business (earlier in the film, one of the gang (who'd had lots of practice with whores) taught Wong how to please a man, although those scenes were far more comic and awkward than erotic and lustful). The sex was very graphic but tasteful rather than trashy and absolutely fitted the mood of the film. Perhaps I am just desensitised to sex and violence at this point. The actress, Tei Wang, did really well anyway in the scene where Wong and Mr Yee hook up. There is none of the earlier (or later) tenderness between the two. It is clear who is in charge. She is just his mistress, his whore. Except, she tries to take control and he punishes her by ripping off her dress, pushing her around, whipping her with his belt and taking her very, very violently. And she enjoys it, although is also clearly very shocked that she does. It's only then that he yields a small segment of the power back to her and allows her to be in charge of his pleasure, albeit briefly.

You know this can't end well, though, because she absolutely can't fall in lust or in love. She is just supposed to do her job, except given how the film begins in the present and then jumps back three years before working back to the opening scene, you know what choice she will have to make. Except, she can't really help herself. At first, she was just playing a role - doing her bit for her country and her friends, and maybe even to impress Kuan. She was such a convincing actress, though, that she even fooled herself and then she couldn't believe it was just a role, any more, or at least, she couldn't distinguish between the role and her real self.

It's always dangerous being a honeytrap. You think that you are infallible - that your heart is stone cold and completely closed to every emotion, that you can resist the temptation to fall...no one is infallible, though. Even falling in lust isn't acceptable on the job when you're a spy, although this film interchanges the words lust and love in the opposite way to normal, hypercorrecting and saying lust when it means love. When the operation goes wrong, you lose out doubly: your heart is broken and your job, aspirations or even your life are taken away. And, of course, if the operation is a success and you destroy the object of your lust, how can that be considered a victory? How can you reconcile that?

Some interesting questions to ponder, anyway. Wei Tang is absolutely stunning - more so as herself, the young, (increasingly less) innocent student, than as the well-off, mah jong playing, society mistress - and does portray her dilemma and conflict exquisitely. The movie also went a small way to educating me about World War II outside Europe, as my knowledge is practically non-existent. I have been to Hong Kong (parts of which looked very similar to the HK shown in the movie, although now there is a lot more neon) and to the national history museum there but for obvious reasons, they didn't focus too much on the Japanese occupation. Yes, it was a long film (I read somewhere that the pace was too languorous for it to be classed as a thriller but it did keep me nervous and agitated throughout, which, I think, is the sign of a thriller for me, even if the action was somewhat sporadic).

Thumbs up, overall, and also, two films in two weeks; I'm doing pretty well, so far. Of course, given that my sleep was so intermittent last night, I probably should just have gone to bed but my mind is so awash at the moment, I tend to forget things within hours (minutes, sometimes). Also, I'm too pissed off with Firefox, which has deleted all my bookmark toolbar folder bookmarks again! Why, Firefox, why? My browser looks naked and I'm seriously annoyed...

E quella a me: "Nessun maggior dolore
che ricordarsi del tempo felice
ne la miseria; e ciò sa 'l tuo dottore.

And she said to me: "There is no greater sorrow
than thinking back upon a happy time
in misery - and this, your teacher knows.

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