Lust, Caution

Reviewed by: sukting

November 08, 2007

Rating: four-point-five

How long
157 min

"Lust, Caution" is Ang Lee's adaptation of the short story of the same title by the famed 1950's Shanghainese author Zhang Ai Ling. Put them together, and you may wonder what chemistry there could be, for Ang Lee is known for his gentle and soft spoken approach, while Zhang for her non-conventional, flamboyant style.

Story (Spoilers)
The year is post-war 1942 and set during World War II after Japan's victory in taking over Shanghai. The motion unreels with a mahjong scene with Mrs. Mak (Tang Wei), a sophisticated woman exchanging furtive glances with Mr. Yee (Leung Chiu Wai), her mahjong kaki's husband. Though not explicit, it is obvious that there is more than meets the eye.

Mrs. Mak then pleads to be excused, claiming that she has a prior engagement she has forgotten about and leaves. She heads out to a café and the plot swirls when she contacts Kuang Yu Min (Wang Lee Hom) and speaks in code to the latter (You must applaud Tang Wei's efforts to speak Cantonese well while Wang did a poor job).

She returns to her seat and thinks of the time when she wasn't known as Mrs. Mak but goes by the name of Wang Jia Zhi, a university student 4 years ago when it had all began...

That was when she first met Yu Min, a patriotic young man who has been forbidden by his family to join the army because his elder brother had died in the war. But there is no stopping the idealistic adolescent. He heads the drama society and enlists the help of Jia Zhi and her friend to act in a nationalist play (Wang is eastern looking in clothes but the way he talks...).
Wong goes easily into the character and through her superb acting; she earns astounding support for the entire cast and makes the play a hit. (I could not help laughing at this scene as Wang looks so wooden with so much artificial make-up.) They are happy to take a bus around town (it was said that Lee also did that in the past.) and Jia Zhi's classmate even teaches her to smoke for better acting in future.

Being the lofty young man that he is, Yu Min becomes dissatisfied with the success of the play and plots to bring the act to a whole new level and the first step of his plan was to assassinate Mr. Yee, who sided with the Japanese during the siege. (Soon we will see how they play with fire and get burned by it.)

The meat of the plan was to plant Jia Zhi around Mr. Yee so as to seduce the highly suspicious and guarded man. They get to know him through Yu Min's neighbour, Tsao (co-star by Chin Kar Lok.) The plan is for her to act as Mrs. Mak, get close to Yee by seducing him and to lure him into the open so the group can kill him during their vacation. Jia Zhi gets along well with Mrs. Mak as she also speaks Shanghainese well.

These inexperienced assassins are an impulsive lot with no planning. They rented a place and brought Mr. Yee to nightspots. But alas – their money goes down the drain and the classmate's father cut off all monetary means as they spend too much time. Unfortunately, after many sacrifices are made, the assassination is not successful. Mr. Yee hardly goes out. One close one – Jia Zhi nearly lures him into the home successfully but he doesn't step in.

The group decides that Jia Zhi should sleep with Mr. Yee to gain his trust (How terrible these people are to make this decision without telling her). But she is a virgin so someone will have to teach her. Jia Zhi is bitter and then asks who will sleep with her. Yu Min and the other guys do not know how to except Liang Run Sheng who often frequents the whores (Many felt that she should have chosen Yu Min and not him).

She spends two nights with this guy. He is delighted that she finally shows response to him in the second night but to her horror, the Yees leave Hong Kong the next day. Her sacrifice is in vain – her first night to be given to a man she doesn't love – Yu Min is certainly a coward! Tsao gets to know the young people's motive and tries to blackmail them. In their haste, Yu Min kills him and all flee to return to China. Jia Zhi grows up overnight.

3 years later, by a strange twist of fate, Wang, now strained by hardship, meets Kuang again. For some reason, maybe it is so that she will get to see Yee again, she agrees to continue where they left off last with the assassination. Yu Min reveals to her that the other spies actually watch on their moves to clear everything for them. He realises how naïve he is and joins them. Their head is Wu – Wu knows that Jia Zhi is inexperienced but lets her try out.

Now they are working in secret and they don't meet up. Maybe Liang Run Sheng is too ashamed to see her too. As like 3 years ago, her mahjong skills never improve and she keeps losing money. (We can’t blame her as she learns too many things.) This scene is unrealistic. Jia Zhi is too daring to want to give Mr. Yee her telephone number in front of his wife! Mrs. Yee seems to be aware of their relationship as she snaps that she knows her number to discontinue her from writing. Still, Mr Yee manages to take a glimpse of it.

Yu Min steals a moment to talk to her in the tram by passing the money to her. She stays in Mr. Yee's home. This time, Yee takes the bait but as they begin their intensely fierce sexual affair, both realize that they fulfill a part of each other's desperation to be loved.

He eventually falls for it and we are waiting in anticipation as the pictures reel to merge her double lives. Mrs. Yee finds a piece of cloth too flowery for her and passes to Jia Zhi. Mr. Yee asks the tailor to confirm that Jia Zhi often visits him as a customer.
She turns out looking stunning in the cheongsam made after visiting the tailor. Mr. Yee is with her making a suit and can't stop admiring her. Judging from his distrusting sense, it is questionable that he goes out with her without testing waters.

He invites her to a Japanese restaurant and discloses that he is tired and frightened to be a spy. To cheer him up, she sings 'Tian Ya Ge Nu' – songstress. I am completely fascinated by this scene. This makes him weep in gratitude after letting her head rest on his knee. Unknown to him, she also expresses her desire to have a simple life too.

He buys an apartment for her. Mr. Yee gives Jia Zhi a namecard. Suspecting it to be a hoax, she brings it to Yu Min and Wu. She requests them to send a letter to her father in England but Wu burns it. To seek revenge for his dead wife and son, Wu can sit opposite his enemy and smile at them to wait for his chance. This is only empty talk. I have not seen him act.

Both men still ask her to go to the jewelery shop as they will get men to guard her. She discloses that she finds it harder to resist Mr. Yee's advances now. Mr. Yee knows how to act and how to reveal his feelings. He is like a snake – not just through entering her body but also into her heart. She can only cry at a corner. (We can't blame her as she isn't trained) Yu Min senses this and wishes to bring forward the assassination plan but Wu refuses as he wants a complete list from Mr Yee. (This man is utterly selfish.)

Yu Min knows the predicament that Jia Zhi is facing and suddenly hugs her from behind – he has loved her all along but is unable to bare his feelings earlier. But it is too late now. She asks him why he doesn’t have sex with her 3 years ago. He sighs, not knowing what to say.

The owner shows her a big red diamond (6 carat heavy!) and she is touched. The next time Mr. Yee brings her to the shop on the second floor of a shophouse – Jia Zhi waits for Mr. Yee in the café. She keeps looking around. (It is stated in the novel - When he arrives, he touches her arm to walk into the shop, touching her breast too. But we don't see it in the movie.)

The ring is ready. He puts it on her finger and adores it fondly while holding her hand. I can bet that all will be won over by his enchanting eyes. Suddenly, Jia Zhi whispers into his ear to tell him to leave. He is confused and looks at her for a while.

Then he realises what is going on and races to his car like a speeding bullet. Never have I seen a running scene so funny. Leung should join the Olympics! This might also be how I looked trying to catch the last night bus home too.

Jia Zhi, on her way back, realises that all roads are blocked. Even the cinema is sealed. Lin escapes and the rest are captured. Mr. Yee's men have known of their identities but refrain from telling him. He quietly puts the ring in front of Mr. Yee but he denies that it is his. My friend watching this movie with me said that Jia Zhi should have worn it to her grave.

The others look at Jia Zhi with hatred as they are executed. The exceptional one will be their female classmate who cries in fear. Jia Zhi doesn't shed a tear. She betrays them and her country for love but it seems that she has no regrets. In the novel, Yu Min gives a sad but firm smile – showing his love for her but Wang only looks furious to me.

Mr. Yee lies to Mrs. Yee that Jia Zhi returned to Hong Kong. He sits at a corner of the bed and weeps over her demise. The novel version only shows how heartless Mr. Yee is to continue the mahjong game at home and gloat over his good fortune. Probably Lee doesn't want to waste Leung's sobbing talents to show that Mr. Yee loves her?!

Introduction on characters
1. Wang Jia Zhi – Tang Wei
Jia Zhi is an innocent student till Yu Min enters her life to tell her to assassinate Mr. Yee. Her struggle comes here – she doesn't get concern from her comrades. Although she can't let her country down, Mr. Yee's tenderness and also the ring is too luring. It might not be love – it might be desire so her heart becomes fluttered to let him go.

I will definitely give her an Oscar! It took only 5 minutes to win me over. Lee has great foresight to choose her. Jia Zhi is pretty but not overly attractive. Tang Wei fits the bill as she is too tall with a strong frame. But she manages to look gentle and extraordinary. At first look she reminds me of Wu Qian Lian who can also do well.

Tang Wei shines in her role as Wang Jia Zhi, the femme fatale who falls in love eventually with Mr. Yee. She has the curves and beauty to seduce a man. She didn't appear to be intimidated by heavy-weight actors. Perhaps she too, like Wang Jia Zhi who is totally immersed in her role as Mrs. Mak in the film, is really in the world of Wang Jia Zhi.

Tang Wei delicately unveils the depths of a struggling woman during hard times, both strong and brave yet desire to be protected. Her subtle body gestures and grazing eyes help her to wear the character under her skin. She can also speak Cantonese, Shanghainese and English perfectly. What's more with her flawless interpretation of 'songstress'?

2. Mr. Yee – Leung Chiu Wai
He works for the Japanese and is a merciless killer. He is a turncoat who is only interested in preserving his own skin. But he is still a normal man who can't resist temptation to fall for a spy. Besides his own skin, he also likes touching the skin of Jia Zhi, since she looks so luring in a cheongsam.

He hates to be in the dark but he sobs in the dark for once to weep for her. He isn't that afraid of being killed in the dark but is afraid to face himself. His life is given by her (he must thank the ring to ruin her defences to save his life) but her death is determined by him. The woman is kind but the man is ruthless – survival and safety is still most important to him.

Leung is highly commendable. He improves his mandarin dictation too. He shifts from cold malevolence to warm desire so effortlessly that he made acting seem easy. He can convey so much complex emotions simply with his liquid and electrifying eyes to charm all of us. How does a cruel man suddenly turn soft? Because the one who acted as Mr. Yee is Chiu Wai.

3. Mrs. Yee – Chen Chong
She was a rich and blithely unconcerned person who marries to an unsmiling, secretive and very high-ranking collaborator with the Japanese. She steals the show although the mahjong scenes are not many.

4. Kwang Yu Min – Wang Lee Hom
Yu Min is a patriotic youth who wants to assassinate Mr. Yee. He has the desire but lacks good proper planning. His role is too flat. Screen presence is very important, not whether one is dashing or drop dead gorgeous. I heard laughter when he appeared. I moan when he speaks Mandarin and Cantonese lines. It has a strong American accent – even weirder than Leung's accent. I doubt many will remember him although he took part in most movie promotions.

Regrettably, Wang Lee Hom presents the pitfall to make matters worse as he does not seem very convincing as a Chinese patriot. He is the weakest link among all. He can sing and tries very hard to act. Credit must be given for his hard work but he really can't act! His acting was too over. All of us know he is an American born Chinese. Why didn't they dub his voice?! Sigh....

5. Wu – Tuo Zhong Hua
He is in charge of the spies. I find him equally scheming as Mr. Yee. Knowing that Jia Zhi is shaken, he still insists that she carries on her mission, putting her life and later the others' lives in jeopardy. He is just an anxious man wanting to seek his own revenge but only wants other to do it for him.

He does well for this role. I can't help wondering. If his ex, Wu Qian Lian takes up the role, how will it turn out? Will they have more chemistry in the scenes?

6. The other comrades in action
They are so strong that they only accentuate Lee Hom's flaws. The actor as 'Mr. Mak' acted as Lee Sai Mun in TVB drama 'Twin of Brothers'. Why are none of them chosen as Yu Min?! Because they look too plain or Lee wants to attract younger Wang fans into the cinema?

The song is very sad with the title 'sink' sung by Cheung Hok Yau. He does well but it can be too flat at certain notes. Not that inspiring than 'Perhaps Love'.

Interesting facts
There had always been much debate whether Wang Jia Zhi is actually based on the real-life account of the author herself. She married Hu Shi, who was called a traitor during the days of WWII. Her controversial romance failed eventually. The 12,000 word novel took Zhang 30 years to complete. It was her last novel written in the U.S in 1950.

I read the novel – it only mentioned that Mr. Yee loves to move his hands around Jia Zhi but there are definitely no sex scenes. Mr. Yee is slightly bald with the face of a mouse. Chiu Wai looks very different, doesn't he? However, if Yee is too plain, how is he going to attract Jia Zhi?

The movie won the prestigious Golden Lion Award during the festival. Even the initial casting of the protagonist Wang Jia Zhi had caused much media frenzy and speculation, with guesses ranging from Zhang Ziyi to Shu Qi, amongst other A-list actresses. Although Ziyi wasn't selected, she went to the Hong Kong premiere. It was said that she upstaged Tang with her dressing. But many reviewers felt that with her shallow acting, she would not be able to add depth for the role. One reviewer even joked that she still looks slutty in every movie.

Many foreigners did not like this movie as it had many mahjong scenes that they did not understand. Fussy people even commented that Leung is short while Tang's face looks weird. If they are looking for Michelle Reis's face, they definitely can't see it. Lee knew it all along – he was mainly shooting it for the Chinese to watch. He had never shot such a daring movie before to tire himself and the whole cast.

Lee was displeased when all kept asking him about the sex scenes – what has the world becoming to? He was under so much pressure that he sobbed when he returned to Taiwan to celebrate mooncake festival with his cast and family.

Wang got too involved in the role to listen to songs that Yu Min would listen and also learn calligraphy too. He came out with the song 'back to the own roots' – Yu Min's song for Jia Zhi. He learned more about China history too.

Chiu Wai praised Tang for not acting like a newcomer. She worked very hard indeed and he liked working with unpredictable people who offer surprises. Initially she felt pressured working with him and had a few NGs. She blamed herself but he did not complain at all to accommodate her. She did not suit the criteria Lee set. He wanted an actress who was 23-24 years old but she was 28.

Lee had claimed that Ziyi was rejected because she wasn't young enough. But Tang was only a few months younger than Ziyi to get selected from 10,000 people. He spent 2 days making her work with a few actresses and decided on her. Tang graduated from Central Academy directing faculty and not acting faculty. But Lee did not mind her lack of experience. Tang learned Shanghaiese 10 hours daily. She also learned how to wear high heels with the cheongsam and read the historical texts.

Vogue labeled her as the newcomer after Ziyi while Telegraph praised her for being the future Gong Li after her debut success. Lee knew that she did too well for this movie and hoped to find a better chance for her after this one. She was already contented to get a good and suitable role this lifetime.

Chiu Wai lost 20kg after shooting it. He only went to the film festival and later left all the other promotions to the rest to shoot another movie in China. Many remembered his joke that he enjoyed stripping for this movie. This was the first time he looked so old in a movie and was also his greatest challenge. He never saw acting as a torture. But the bed scenes were tough. The addition of Mr. Yee pulling Jia Zhi's hair to hit her head against the wall was his idea.

But the toughest was not the bed scene that took hours to shoot – it was how to walk with Tang. Speaking in flawless mandarin gave him a lot of pressure. He joked with Lee – if he changed the script, he would kill himself.

Some Singaporeans were so upset over the NC-17 version that they boycotted the movie till the complete version was out. A total of 9 minutes was cut by Lee Ang himself. It was quite frustrating for me to watch this version. I did not get to see what happened to Jia Zhi after Mr. Yee ties her with his belt. The way that Yu Min kills Tsao is said to be so scary that it gave Wang nightmares after that because it was a lengthy attack. But this was also omitted.

The movie was shot in Shanghai and Ipoh. Lee read the novel over 30 times to add in more and more into the script. He found Zhang scary – who would dare to write love presiding over patriotism? He recalled that he also came into directing because he was involved in plays like Jia Zhi. Acting could be true in real life.

What he disagreed was how Zhang turned men to be ugly. She did not tell much in her novel. He believed that Tang is not acting as Jia Zhi but as Zhang. He knew that he would lose out if he followed the novel faithfully. He isn't her translator so he added his own ideas.

The movie did not get nominated for Best Oscar foreign picture or in Hong Kong film awards because it did not have enough Chinese/Hong Kong working crew. It was nominated for many in the 2007 Golden Horse and Golden Globe awards. Lee was very upset over this. Still, he was happy that Chiu Wai won the best actor (unfortunately he was absent due to work on that starry night) while Tang Wei won the best newcomer awards in the Golden Horse awards. He was disappointed that Lee Hom was not even nominated for the best supporting actor award (but I believe many will heave a sigh of relief) although he himself won the best director award.

Tang Wei was the centre of attraction that night. I could not help laughing at how different men were excited in meeting her. Lyric writer, Fang Wen San was thrilled and said happily that he could brag to Zhou Jie Lun over his luck that he had held Tang Wei’s hand after winning the best OST score with him (Zhou was absent due to his Hong Kong concert stint). Famous pianist Li Yun Di also became shy like a fan to tell Tang Wei that he had watched this NC-17 version in the China cinema too despite his busy schedule.
Many viewers joked that Lee Hom hardly left her side throughout the session besides performing his violin stint on different movie songs which included Lust, Caution. We could see both sitting close to each other on television and were matching in looks indeed. Some fans from China even created a marriage certificate for both online, feeling that Jia Zhi should have a happy ending with Yu Min.

I was tired before watching this movie at 10PM because I watched 1.5h of short films shot by New York students. Surprisingly, when I watched this movie, I became energetic and my eyes were glued on the big screen. This shows that a masterpiece is a very attractive piece of art.

I managed to catch the complete version after this to make a comparison. It definitely tells how depressed Jia Zhi is after sleeping with Run Sheng. Looking at her naked back facing the window make all feel sorry for her. The lengthy attack shows how helpless the group is – each of them keeps stabbing Tsao upon seeing him continue to breathe. Yu Min’s last addition makes him sprawl on the stairs and this scares Jia Zhi to run away in shock.

But the most stunning parts are the bed scenes. Mr. Yee behaves like a ruthless SM after tying Jia Zhi up with his belt. Tang Wei and Chiu Wai definitely act professionally when coming to the next two bed scenes – in the unexpected positions. All are speechless after watching this version – all will not expect the usually quiet Lee Ang to make this arrangement!

This combination between Ang Lee and Zhang is not only lethal, but truly sizzling. The strong storyline, strengthened by Lee's sharp and clean directing certainly makes this a very good suspense spy drama. Hong Kong writer Tao Jie even described Lee as Zhang's confidante. But I think that Zhang doesn't believe in tears. That is why her writings are merciless.

Ang Lee really brings a balance to the story in his movie. In the novella, it is very hard to imagine or understand why Wang Jia Zhi would have asked Mr. Yee to escape at the very last minute of the planned assassination. If the speculations are true, it may be very difficult or embarrassing for Zhang to really express how she was tormented by her hatred for her husband, paralleled by Mr. Yee (who didn't love her as much as she loved him) and the possibility that she was totally obsessed by Mr. Yee who can give her sheer physical pleasures.

Lee, however, really brings out a perspective that is lacking in the original story despite some flaws, thus adding on a refreshingly new dimension that is at once very exciting. The only down side is that most of the sex scenes between Jia Zhi and Mr. Yee is pared down to a minimum in the cut version, and so we can't really see the passions or lust that had drawn the two together and how it had blinded Jia Zhi.

It was totally ruined when I only got to see how her cheongsam was torn and the next scene was an opera singer singing in an inn! The scene was crucial as this is to test her sincerity towards him as he feels insecure. He initially treats her like the way he treats the other prisoners. How and why she becomes fearful of him and yet loves him? The link was definitely broken and it makes Jia Zhi seem like a materialistic woman.

The cut parts are crucial in the plot development – it makes a whole world of difference. Mr. Yee rapes Jia Zhi the first time but she can’t stop loving him as he shows her affections in later bed scenes. In one scene, she claims to want to return to Hong Kong. He hastily lowers his guard to touch her face tenderly and anxiously – the next moment, he kisses and fondles her body. Sigh – no one can resist this kind of charm – even if she might be a trained spy.

The acting is fantastic. Newcomer Tang Wei held up acting opposite veteran Chiu Wai. My friend became a big fan of Chiu Wai. What was a pity in terms of casting has to be Wang Lee Hom who plays Tang's love interest, Kuang. He needs to brush up on his acting skills.

Lust, Caution is truly an enjoyable masterpiece with 1. deep, multilayered storyline, 2. astonishingly detailed props and 3. superb acting. Just like life, the storyline is heavily woven with human emotions and irrationality. It is so complex that when my friend asked me who the villain is, I can't say. Is it Kuang who selfishly drags Wang into the assassination plan? Or Yee who betrays his own country? There is no answer in love.

Sukting's ratings :
On acting :**** (Scale of 5) (*must cut down because of Lee Hom)

On story : ****1/2 (Scale of 5)

On song : ***1/2 (Scale of 5)

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