When Ang Lee directs a movie based on the writing of Eileen Chang, you know you’re going to get something incredible. Watching this presented one of those rare times where my expectations were through the roof and the actual experience took me further, to outer space, to feelings I wasn’t quite ready to visit.
Basically, I sobbed through all the credits–and, while I am a cry baby at movies, it has been years since I cried this hard over a film. I mean, I don’t think I would want to watch it with anyone but my sister or mother or a close friend. It hits a very tender spot.
People who know Lee’s work know that’s how it can be with him. But few may know Chang. She was an incredibly popular writer in China, depicting, among other things, life in the 40s under the Japanese occupation. She had a way with the pen of cutting right into the bone of behavior and circumstance–I am always energized and refreshed when I sit with her writing … sometimes disturbed, almost always haunted.
Give Lee her writings and Tony Leung a lead roll and you’re not just going to a movie. You’re signing up to have a penetrating, lingering, unspeakable and cathartic experience. The plot, basically, revolves around a shy yet precise protagonist, Wong Chai Chi (played by Wei Tang, a relatively new actress who is well cast), and her involvement in an acting troupe turned nationalistic espionage ring hell bent on killing a key political figure, Mr. Yee (played by Tony Leung, who has been rightly described as one of the most talented actors in international cinema today).
Chai Chi’s acting (inspired by naive dedication to nationalistic propaganda) prompts standing ovations, and thus she is chosen as a key pawn in a plot to seduce and track Mr. Yee, who is well aware that he is wanted by many rings. He is also a mafia-grade interrogator/assassin–and is thus notoriously difficult to pin down and is never, ever prone to divulge anything factual, even with his wife. Chai Chi makes it into a circle of women, including Mrs. Yee, and works her way steadily into the closer graces of Mr. Yee, who is poised like a snow leopard–elusive yet precise when he comes to light … and coaxed only mystically toward what he senses and desires in Chai Chi.
This film builds slowly. Yet when its points begin to flesh out–when Mr. Yee makes moves with Chai Chi and the two finally get involved–you realize it was well worth the wait. Structurally, the film opens with a point in time just before the climax and works us back a few years to watch everything catch back up. Nothing super innovative there, yet the effect would not be the same without this loop–like a thread doubling back round a needle’s eye and running through to meet the end (this is as close to a spoiler as I get). We meet the circumstances we saw initially with a different feeling in our guts–a feeling that things are going to get very tragic, soon.
In the end, the film’s title says all a person needs to know about the unique gist of the film. While it is not unique in real life, few, if any, film teams have pulled off with such visceral precision the portrayal of the danger in getting so close to another person when matter-of-fact circumstances absolutely forbid it. Furthermore, few films display with such simple elegance what is important to a man–even one who appears in all ways impossible–to soften and the way a woman can be completely possessed by the effects of intimacy, to the point of flowing into an entirely different stream of her existence, a stream that jeopardizes it, in fact.
This is a bit of Shakespeare meets Shanghai–Romeo and Juliet in the era of Japanese-occupied China. But with a twist. In the end, it is not fate so much as regrettable betrayal and human limitation that breaks this party up, yet neither suffer less for it … perhaps it was fate after all.
I want to be more than vague, but really I would just spoil it if I went any further. To echo a sentiment of a reviewer on IMDB, who said that if he had been younger when he watched this, he wouldn’t have understood it: if you have ever loved, deeply, you will get a lot out of this film.
PS: I had wanted to watch Lust, Caution for years, but many outlets only offered a cut version and, being very comfortable with R+ sex scenes and curious as to what Lee wanted to portray, I held out to find a copy I could rent from a library that was uncut. I suggest the uncut. I can’t imagine missing a moment of this one.