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Matthew Johnson

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April 16, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright April 16, 2008 Matthew Johnson. Used by permission.


Was it real? While anticipation for the release of Lust, Caution built, one perennial question followed director Ang Lee’s most recent feature: were the sex acts performed by its two stars, Tony Leung and Tang Wei, simulated or full? The parties involved played coy. Lee himself spoke sparingly of the closed sets and skeleton film crew used to film these scenes. While he would later lament the ceaseless focus on his film’s erotic content, however, Lee could hardly be disappointed with the outcome. Lust, Caution reveled in its superstar cast, splashy publicity, and arresting imagery. Released in both edited and unedited versions, it successfully played by the rules of multiple film ratings and review commissions while earning the respect of audiences worldwide. Box office and rental profits remain high. In short, Lee returned to form as a director capable of courting worldwide admiration for his mastery of spectacle and fantasy. And unlike his two actors, he hardly broke a sweat.

Initial reactions to the film were mixed. Hollywood Reporter coverage of the Venice International Film Festival, where Lust, Caution debuted on August 30, 2007 noted that the film brought to mind “what soldiers say about war: that it’s long periods of boredom relieved by moments of extremely heightened excitement.” Yet festival judges disagreed, awarding Ang Lee his second Golden Lion in two years (the first was for the 2005 release Brokeback Mountain). Nor did U.S. co-producer Focus Features necessarily play up the film’s sexual imagery. One plot synopsis circulated by the company remains fairly close to the details of the eponymous Eileen Chang story on which the screenplay was based: Shanghai, 1942. The World War II Japanese occupation of this Chinese city continues in force. Mrs. Mak, a woman of sophistication and means, walks into a café, places a call, and then sits and waits. She remembers how her story began several years earlier, in 1938 China. She is not in fact Mrs. Mak, but shy Wong Chia Chi. With WWII underway, Wong has been left behind by her father, who has escaped to England. As a freshman at university, she meets fellow student Kuang Yu Min. Kuang has started a drama society to shore up patriotism. As the theater troupe’s new leading lady, Wong realizes that she has found her calling, able to move and inspire audiences and Kuang. He convenes a core group of students to carry out a radical and ambitious plan to assassinate a top Japanese collaborator, Mr. Yee. Each student has a part to play; Wong will be Mrs. Mak, who will gain Yees’ trust by befriending his wife and then draw the man into an affair. Wong transforms herself utterly inside and out, and the scenario proceeds as scripted until an unexpectedly fatal twist spurs her to flee. Shanghai, 1941. With no end in sight for the occupation, Wong having emigrated from Hong Kong goes through the motions of her existence. Much to her surprise, Kuang re-enters her life. Now part of the organized resistance, he enlists her to again become Mrs. Mak in a revival of the plot to kill Yee, who as head of the collaborationist secret service has become even more a key part of the puppet government. As Wong reprises her earlier role, and is drawn ever closer to her dangerous prey, she finds her very identity being pushed to the limit…