In the US, the NC-17 rating is the modern equivalent of the X-rating, given by the MPAA to films it deems to be containing extreme scenes of graphic sexual or drug-related imagery. It is generally considered box-office poison: many film producers will rather issue a film unrated than risk an NC-17 rating, or will recut down to gain the lesser R rating. So it is perhaps a little surprising that Ang Lee, a relatviely mainstream director of both popular and critical repute, has chosen to release his new film Lust, Caution with an NC-17 rating. After all, the last (and indeed only other) film to gain a widespread release at this rating was Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 exploitation shocker Showgirls. Not exactly a fine pedigree.
The rating is due in this case to a series of rather graphic sex scenes, which have been subsequently edited out of the Chinese release; but they are important to the film’s integrity, and it is understandable why they have been left in the Western releases; we need them just as we need that initial raw, fleshy coming together of Ennis and Jack in Ang Lee’s last film, the great Brokeback Mountain (2005).
At the centre of the story is an extraordinary debut performance by Chinese actress Wei Tang as Wong Chia Chi, a young student in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation of northern China in the late 1930s. She becomes involved in a politically-conscious acting group performing nationalistic propagandist plays, where she develops an attraction to its leader, Kuang. Their involvement in the conflict becomes more proactive, and they plot to kill Yee, a member of the puppet government in the pocket of the Japanese occupiers, using Wong as the honey trap. As with most espionage thrillers, to reveal too much of the labyrinthine twists and turns of the plot would be to spoil the fun, but needless to say Wong and Kuang inevitably get hot and heavy eventually.
Ang Lee is one of that breed of film school directors like Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee, who have an awareness of cinema history, and a keenness to pay respectful homage. In Lust, Caution the key reference text would be Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 thriller Notorious, the espionage thriller where Ingrid Bergman must go undercover to spy on Nazis in South America; at one stage we even see a brief clip of Bergman in a scene at a cinema, as well as seeing another featuring that film’s other star, Cary Grant. In Notorious, Bergman’s character Alicia is an enigmatic one, we are never entirely sure what her motivations and true feelings are towards the task she has been forced into performing; there is the similar doubt in our minds about Wong in this film.
As previously stated, the central performance by Wei Tang is exceptional for a debut; she displays a fine array of different emotions, leaving enough ambiguity in the audience’s mind as to not allow us to second-guess what will happen next. It is even more impressive that she manages to hold her own against an acting heavyweight such as the legendary Tony Leung, playing against type here as a sleazy but jaded political chameleon.
What is also significant, in what is otherwise a fairly standard espionage thriller, is the cultural and historical themes touched upon in the film. The ladies in the film play a LOT of Mahjong, a culture which it is difficult to overstate the importance of to the western audience – it is an important social rite, like an Eastern form of poker night, where spreading and relaying gossip and rumour is much more important than the game itself. Similarly interesting is the rich variety of languages spoken in the film: Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Shanghainese as well as plain old English all make an appearance somewhere along the way; I was reminded of the rich tapestry of dialects populating Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s wonderful A City of Sadness (1989), which also threw Taiwanese into the melting pot which, perhaps surprisingly, Taiwanese Ang Lee does not here.
The historical background is one which is significant, too; the Sino-Japanese wars lasted from approxiamately 1931 until the the Japanese surrender in 1945, and is still a subject of bitter resentment between the two empires. It is believed that there were as many as 35 million casualties on the Chinese side alone, with the creation of a further 95 million refugees. The film gives snapshots of the effect of the occupation in Shanghai: the daily shootings, shortages and rationing of food, even the hijacking of Western films with pro-Japanese propaganda in cinemas. But although this is a period piece, it does not try to give a large-scale idea of the political situation.
Lust, Caution won the Golden Lion at Venice last year, making Ang Lee only the second director ever to win it twice, the other being Louis Malle. By sheer coincidence, Hou’s A City of Sadness received the award, too, in 1989. But although it shares much in common with its Golden-Lion-winning big brother, Brokeback Mountain, it never feels as substantial or important a work. It has received only a lukewarm reception in the US, in contrast to the unanimous praise heaped on it in China, though this may be reflective of the popularity of the original Eileen Chang source story. That said, as a wartime espionage thriller, it is hard to find significant fault.