Ang Lee’s Tale of Love, Deception, and Betrayal Come Uncut to Blu-Ray



Lust, caution could describe Ang Lee’s entire filmography. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain, and, yes, Hulk, all have protagonists torn between giving into one’s emotions, and the dangers of doing so. Both the protagonist of 2007’s Lust, Caution, and her target/lover are likewise torn. The cost of giving in, however, isn’t just society’s scorn, but their death. 

The movie takes place in Shanghai in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Japan has invaded and is occupying China. Tang Wei (Michael Mann’s Blackhat) stars as Wong Chai Chi, a shy college student who joins a political theater troupe because her friend does. Chai Chi quickly proves to be a gifted actor, and her performances cause her audience to leap to their feet shouting patriotic slogans. Inspired by the troupe’s success, its leader, the charismatic Kuang Yu Min (Wang Leehom) convinces the gang to attempt a more concrete action against those who collaborate with the Japanese: they’re going to trap and kill Mr. Yee, a high ranking agent of the puppet government ruling China.

Yee is played by the great Tony Leung. Best known for his roles in John Woo’s Hard Boiled, or the films of Wong Kar-wai (Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love), Leung’s career by the time he made Lust, Caution stretched back decades. His first credit was in 1981, just 2 years after his co-star Tang was born. That disparity in age and experience plays well into the power dynamics between Yee and Chai Chi as well.

Lust, Caution was Tang’s first film role, and thanks to its graphic sexual content, it was almost her last. The Chinese film industry reacted strongly to her participation in the movie’s sex scenes and blacklisted her from appearing in any ads promoting the film, even after said scenes were removed for exhibition in China. She didn’t work again for almost three years. Leung apparently suffered no such backlash. 

But Tang slips effortlessly into her role here. Even as a newcomer, Tang is more than capable of holding her own against the much more experienced Leung. Likewise, her character Chia Chi evolves over the course of the film from an inexperienced girl to a woman playing a dangerous game, where any misstep will mean her death. Chia Chi has been given the role of her lifetime: she is to seduce Mr. Yee, and when the opportunity arises, set him up for assassination. 

Yee isn’t an easy mark, however. He never seems to let his guard down. But Chia Chi is able to slip past his emotional safeguards. He begins their assignations by physically dominating and abusing her. He demands full control over their relationship. As things progress, however, he seems to soften. Chia Chi gets through his armor and, I don’t know if love is the right word here, but something occurs between them to the point where Chia Chi begins to fear that she will be lost inside the role she has been assigned to play.

There is an uncomfortable aspect to this. Yee, though seemingly respectable, is a monster. He beats Chia Chi, he has betrayed his own countrymen, and presides over the torture and death of those who would fight for China’s liberation. And he makes no apologies for any of this. He offers no sad explanations. To see Chia Chi fall in love with this man, to the point where she might consider betraying her own cause to save him is distressing to say the least.

Lust, Caution doesn’t place the blame on Chia Chi for her conflicted feelings. She’s a lost soul who’s grasping at a father figure who offers her some validation. She even sees the danger she finds herself in, and she begs her handlers to either get her out or hurry up with the assassination. They treat her as a tool that can be used then discarded in the name of liberation. They’re fighting for freedom, but have no consideration of the lives they waste along the way, even just to mourn their loss.

The movie was shot by Rodrigo Prieto, who collaborated with Lee on Lee’s previous film Brokeback Mountain. The movie’s images are filmed with warm light that gives every scene a sepia glow. It is a gorgeous looking film, with period costuming and set design contributing to the feeling of a story taking place once upon a time. 

Kino Lorber’s release of Lust, Caution is of the un-edited NC-17 cut. When the movie was first released on DVD in 2008, it was as a version that was trimmed down to achieve an ‘R’ rating, as major video rental chains would not carry NC-17 movies (remember things like that, those of you who still feel nostalgia for Blockbuster and its ilk). Even theatrically, the NC-17 rating was considered a ‘kiss of death’ box-office wise, as certain theater chains would not show such films, and certain newspapers wouldn’t even advertise them. As it turned out, Lust, Caution would only score $4 million at the U.S. Box office, against a total budget of $15 million. World-wide, however, its total gross would be $67 million, making it a success. 

Kino’s blu-ray also comes with a feature-length commentary track by film historian Eddy Van Mueller, who provides background and context not only for the film’s production but also for the time period in which the film was set. This information isn’t necessary for engagement with the film’s story, but it does deepen and enhance one’s understanding of it. It also comes with a short documentary on the making of the movie called Tiles of Deception & Lurid Affection as well as a theatrical trailer.