Spy who loved me

MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Lust, Caution is entirely engrossing, despite its slow pace and its length, with superb performances throughout.

As readers of last week’s Mail & Guardian will know, Ang Lee’s new film, Lust, Caution, is based on a short story by Eileen Chang.

The new Penguin edition containing that story tells us that it was begun in the 1950s but not published until 1979. It’s interesting to speculate why that happened. Was it too autobiographical?

Chang herself had an affair with, and then in fact married, a minor figure in the puppet government of China while it was occupied by the Japanese in the 1940s. In the story it’s a high-up official of that puppet government, but that’s acceptable licence — and certainly adds to the drama.

Or is the story unfinished? Perhaps Chang could not find an entirely satisfactory way to resolve it or to balance out the tension between the protagonists. It does feel, in some ways, unfinished — or at least not entirely filled in. Lee’s adaptation (by screenwriter James Schamus, who has written several films for Lee) adds a considerable amount of material to the storyline, giving it much more depth and texture than the original contains.

More than he did with the E Annie Proulx story on which he based Brokeback Mountain, Lee has used Chang’s story as an outline and a starting point.

Perhaps Chang delayed publication of the story because it’s all too ambiguous and ambivalent. It’s about a woman who infiltrates the life (particularly the sex life) of an official in the puppet government, spurred by the group of young Chinese nationalists of which she is a part. They later fall under the command of what is not named as but can only be the communist resistance to Japanese rule. But in the process of this long and complex seduction the woman gets more than she bargained for.

In life, Chang’s collaborationist lover betrayed her romantically and she fled China, by then under communist rule. Living in the United States, she was paid by the United States Information Service to write novels that were, in essence, anti-communist propaganda.

So the chronicler of 1940s Shanghai, condemned by other Chinese writers for a lack of seriousness and/or a concern with bourgeois trivialities, later did her own kind of spying and collaboration and was herself caught in the cross-currents of conflicting loyalties.

Yet Chang undercuts the idea of dealing with large moral issues in black-and-white terms. “I don’t like stark conflicts between good and evil,” She is quoted as saying in the Penguin reissue. She also sets out her stall, politically speaking, in clear terms: she admits that her characters are “not heroes”, that they are “weak”, but says that these weak people “bear the burden of our age — they sum up this age of ours better than any hero”.

This is a pretty good description of Lust, Caution and the problems of its protagonists. Wong Chia Chi (Wei Tang), the woman who embarks on the undercover seduction, is given strength in this enterprise by her nationalist resistance group, but ultimately succumbs to weakness in relation to her target, Mr Yi (Tony Leung Chiu Wai). There is an extraordinary moment in the film — its heart, in a way — in which she confesses to this weakness.

Yi, by comparison, is a collaborationist Gestapo-type whose weakness is less apparent because he’s a powerful and ruthless official in a brutal regime, although that collaboration itself is a sign of weakness. And the movie carefully goes on to show the personal weakness that emerges from his interaction with Wong. Arguably, too, his position in a government that we know, historically, to have been doomed gives his position a retrospective, inbuilt weakness.

At a late stage in Chung’s story Yi meditates on how useful information can be extracted from captives by “a slow, reasoned torture”. The phrase is amazing; “reasoned” is an adjective one does not automatically associate with torture. But it’s also a good thumbnail description of the film itself: slow, reasoned torture. The progress of the plot against Yi and the development of the relationship with Wong are played out very deliberately, motivated by good political reasons; but the heart, of course, also has its reasons, and King Lear reminds us to reason not the need.

The film’s slow development (the “caution”?) is part of the torture these characters go through; the viewer’s version of that is the unrelenting suspense the film generates — as well as the impact of the sex scenes (the lust part). Lee has taken the armature of Hitchcock’s Notorious, all but dismissed the Cary Grant role, and introduced Notorious to Nagisa Oshima’s shocker In the Realm of the Senses. It’s as though he were more interested in Ingrid Bergman’s fake marriage with Nazi Claude Raines than what the purported “good guy” spymaster thinks and feels. Remember, this is about weakness; weakness as tragedy.

Lust, Caution is entirely engrossing, despite its slow pace and its length, with superb performances throughout, and is as beautifully put together as all Lee’s work. It is dark but lush, appropriately concerned with surfaces and with material wealth — and with what seethes beneath that surface. He cannot give us Yi’s final thoughts on the affair, as Chang does very powerfully in her story, but what he does give us is more than enough.

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