Lust, Caution

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Lust, Caution fails largely because of its sex scenes. However, this isn’t a comment on how graphic they are. Many films with graphic sexual content have succeeded as fine examples of the cinematic art – Cronenberg’s Crash, Polanski’s Bitter Moon and Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris to name but a few. Instead Lust, Caution fails because its sex scenes don’t have conviction. They don’t feel organic. They feel contrived. It’s like Ang Lee has been thumbing the Kama Sutra and wants to fill his film with as many sexual positions as he can. This alone, this sexual variety, is meant to convey the characters’ passion. But it’s a sorry substitute for chemistry between actors or great writing.

To make matters worse, the twist at the end, the scene where the heroine Chia Chi sells out her country and her friends, hinges on her love for this traitor she’s been fucking. Now if you really felt that they were in love or if their lust was hot stuff, you could maybe believe the heroine’s actions, but instead I sat there wanting to hit myself in the face. This girl is an idiot. She’s a fuckwit. She gets a bit of cock and her beau gives her the ugliest ring known to humanity and suddenly she’s lost all sense. I wanted to slap her. I wanted her resistance pals to blow her brains out all over the pavement. She sells everyone out for a bit of dick.

And its not even good dick. The sex scenes are about as exciting as a Power Point presentation by Al Gore about climate change. We’re just meant to accept that these characters are passionate because we get a brief glimpse of ball bags and because we see the traitor (Mr Yee) huffin’ and a puffin’ between Chia Chi’s wide open legs. But I refuse to believe that there is anything going on under the surface. I refuse to believe in any underlying emotions – they’re just not there. And anyway, in the first major sex scene the girl is manhandled and then later she confesses that Mr Yee isn’t sexually satisfied until she’s bleeding. So not only does he fuck her with blank, emotionless eyes, but he’s abusive as well. Wow, it’s the love story of the century.

But attempts are made to give the relationship depth – Chia Chi sings a sweet song for Mr Yee and she confesses to hating him when he’s not there to be with her. But they feel like far too little.

However, even though the sex scenes are cold and passionless, for a while I did think that they might have served a useful purpose. I wanted to believe in the idea that Mr Yee knew that Chia Chi was a resistance operative and that she planned to kill him. This might have given the relationship more meaning than one of twisted love. But instead, in the end, with Mr Yee mournfully sitting on Chia Chi’s bed after she’s executed, it’s revealed that the relationship was as simple as it seemed. Two people got a bit of the horn and maybe thought they loved one another. Two and a half hours of film so that I can watch some silly bitch betray everyone because some wanker gives her a few orgasms.

But all the talk of sex is missing the fact that there’s not actually that much sexual content. This is more of a thriller than a grumble flick. And as a thriller it works pretty well. There’s one great scene where a young theatre troupe turned resistance cell kill their informer. It’s incredibly clumsy and brutal. It actually kind of reminded me of the scene in Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain where a communist is beaten remorselessly and just won’t die. This scene has the same kind of desperation. It also has the same kind of lack of glory. All the time in the movies we’re shown how easy it is to kill and how wonderful it is slay someone ‘evil’. But there’s no glory here. The murder is nasty and grubby.

It also marks the point where the actors enter the real world. Before you kind of feel like they’re playing at being a resistance cell. But now they’re finally playing with the big boys. And it also shows how empty their patriotic plays are. They talk of China never falling and one of the characters wants to avenge his brother’s death, but for all their high-minded ideas, they’re really just murderers. Yes they’re doing it for their country, but they finally realise that taking a human life is a difficult thing.

Another set-piece that is well filmed is the one where Chia Chi is meant to have Mr Yee executed. With resistance operatives looming in doorways and hanging out of windows, Lee builds the tension superbly. It’s just a shame that Chia Chi decides to spare her worthless lover. A great piece of cinema all of a sudden had me wanting to slap the bald head of the man sitting in front of me in the theatre. Here is a character who really is worthy of death. Here’s a man who is torturing and killing Chia Chi’s countrymen, but because he knows how to use his penis, Chia Chi allows him to continue inflicting his suffering on her people.

But speaking of knowing how to use one’s penis, there was a scene that really made me laugh. When Chia Chi begins trying to woo Mr Yee, we find out that she’s a virgin. Therefore she needs to learn how to have sex. Cue some amusing awkward sexual encounters with one of her friends. At first the guy does most of the work, but later she’s on top of him, taking care of business. He then says something like, ‘You’re finally getting the hang of it’. Chia Chi’s reaction is to tell him to shut up. I liked that a lot.

But the same can’t be said for the film as a whole. It had a lot of potential, but in the end it’s a shallow experience. There’s less than meets the eye.

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