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Bebbies, I’m gonna let you in on a little known secret; way up in my home above the clouds (- between my ears) I am the proud keeper of a harem, not a huge stable but a pretty choice one. A spouse for every mood and whim. In my Divine Home of Well-Repute resides my Dowager husband, one Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, he is number one of about a dozen and by far the king of the lot. My choice of Leung Chiu-Wai as a mate comes after viewing many of the Hong Kong legend’s films over his quarter century plus career, Days of Being Wild, Hard Boiled, Chungking Express, Happy Together and In The Mood For Love, to name a few. What first grabbed my heart (- and eyeballs) was his performance (-and hair extensions) as the honourable, stoic Broken Sword in 2002’s Hero, and what made me lock him in the stable forever was his unforgettable performance in the Hong Kong cop-drama landmark, Infernal Affairs. MG was D.O.A. as I watched him parlay action, drama and pathos like a master violinist. Add to that his hilarious performance in Chinese Odyssey 2002 to show off his comedic skills and what did I tell ya? The perfect man. 

The sight of a full grown elephant bouncing up and down like a little kid on a sugar high is just not a pretty sight, but that was your MG at the announcement (- via our beloved MonkeyPeaches) that Tony Leung had opted in for the newest feature by Oscar-winning director Ang Lee. All the months of reporting could not have possibly readied me for the spectacle of Leung Chiu-Wai’s performance in Lust, Caution. 

As much as I want to go on and on about my dearest spouse, I must begin with the story. Written as a short story by Chinese icon, author Eileen Chang. Lust, Caution is a tale of lost identities, espionage, sacrificed innocence, (lots of -) sex, manners, politics and children’s games gone too far. In 1938, a teenaged girl is abandoned by her father as the Japanese pursue aggressions against the Chinese. The girl, Wong Chia Chi escapes to university where she finds her first love in a fellow student, Kuang Yu Min, a zealous nationalist who begins an drama society to promote pro-Chinese propaganda. As any girl in the throes of her first crush would do, Wong jumps at the chance to impress her potential new beau and joins the club. Whilst acting in their first play, Wong Chia Chi finds herself transformed, the thrill of becoming another character and using her talents to captivate and unite the cheering, chanting audience becomes her 2nd love after Kuang. While her cohorts celebrate their first play’s success with much ballyhooing and imbibing, Wong simply sits quietly, taking in the moment and letting the love of the anonymous crowd fill her heart. The effect of their popularity has also affected Kuang, who concocts a plan for the troupe to use their thespian skills to launch an assassination plot against one Mr. Yee, a Chinese official Kuang suspects of colluding with the Japanese to arrest fellow nationalists. The absurdity of a bunch of college freshmen with no espionage or war experience attempting such an act never occurs to the starry-eyed school kids. Peer pressure and a total lack of reality has all the students agreeing with Kuang’s strategy of infiltrating the social circle of Yee and his wife, becoming close to them on a social level so as to know their comings and goings. Obediently going along with the wishes of her unrequited sweetheart, Wong takes her acting to a new level assuming the identity of Mrs. Mak, the wife of an industrialist recently moved across the road from the Yees. As Mrs. Mak, Wong creates a woman of class bearing and sophistication eons away from the young girl she really is. Employing the wiles and poses of Wong’s film icons like Greta Garbo and Bette Davis, Wong draws the aloof elusive Yee into her web. Piddling obstacles like the innocent Wong’s virginity are merely something to overcome (- with the only boy in the troupe who’s claimed to have experience – and no, it’s not Kuang), it’s all in the name of China! It all smacks of playacting gone way too far. Unfortunately, for the Jingoistic students, an unexpected murder in their midst throws all their plans into disarray and Wong cracks up under the pressure, fleeing into the night away from the madness. 

We catch up to Wong in 1941, still in school and spending all her free time watching American movies as a balm for the empty life she’s living. Her hollow eyes showing the effect of her life lived amongst the would-be assassins; she has had to go back to her role as a simple schoolgirl once again. Just when she’s resigned herself to an uncomfortable sense of normalcy, Kuang shows up again on behalf of the nationalists, asking Wong to put Mrs. Mak on again as Mr. Yee has returned to Shanghai. Wong, having nothing else but the memories of being needed by the troupe and by Kuang, coupled with the thrill of pulling off her greatest performance, agrees to meet with Yee again. 

Once Wong meets Yee for their first assignation, he shows her why he is a man to be feared in an act so brutal and violent it’s a wonder Wong doesn’t run screaming for her life. Conversely, because she doesn’t run away and allows Yee to have his debauched way with her makes Wong irreplaceable to him. During the scene, Yee turns Mrs. Mak’s head away from him as he pummels her brutally, ripping at her clothes and binding her, and when it’s done he throws her coat at her and leaves their room. Wong smiles, he’s hooked. In these violent rendezvous, we see Yee’s catharsis; he believes he has found a soul mate, someone who will love him no matter what foul thing he does to her body. Over the course of their affair, they achieve a goodly part of the Kama Sutra, no limits or inhibitions between them and it’s the small, twisted Yee’s only moment to truly be who he is. It’s the perfect Sado-Masochistic relationship. For Wong, you wonder how much of it is acting and how much she really feels, and here is the axis of her story. The further she carries on the affair with Yee, the further torn away she becomes from her own identity. She inhabits Mrs. Mak, a sexual cipher on which Yee can purge himself of any feelings he is capable of having. She lives only for Yee’s pleasure and the upkeep of that perfect disguise threatens to take over the young, unworldly girl who only did any of this for love of an oblivious college boy. Both identities twist and collide, the sophisticated mistress and the idealistic schoolgirl who only wanted to be wanted. Mrs. Mak may actually love Yee, who cherishes her with lavish gifts one moment, then is perfectly willing to smack her the next, while Wong clearly hates him for his utter corruption and his regular assaults on her body. How long can both personalities exist within one young girl without giving her dangerous and deadly game away?  

I was fortunate enough to interview Director Lee prior to the release of the film, I asked him if he had any reticence with taking the much beloved “Asian Cary Grant”, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, and putting him in this reprehensible and ugly role, and he preambled his response by saying that he thought that “this movie was the reverse side of Notorious”, which couldn’t be a more apt description for this twisting plot of intrigues and false identities. In the 1946 Alfred Hitchcock film, Ingrid Bergman plays a loose young woman blackmailed by the government into infiltrating a group of Nazis and seducing one of their leaders. Cary Grant, at his most charming and suave, plays Bergman’s assigned protector, who falls in love with her while accusing her of some vile things - the very things that her government asked her to do. In Lust, Caution, the young girl here is an innocent, willingly thrown into the lion’s den time and time again by a Resistance that is powerless and ineffective to protect her and actually enables her loss of virtue so she can carry out their plans. Instead of the china doll that Bergman is treated like by Claude Rains, her victim in Notorious, Leung Chiu-Wai’s duped collaborator, Yee, takes a heavy toll to allow Mrs. Mak/Wong Chia Chi entry into his world, battering her body and psyche.  

In Lust, Caution we see the birth of a new star in Tang Wei. In her first feature role, she is mesmerising and fearless. Absolutely authentic as the young, innocent country girl, Wong Chia Chi, her total immersion into the role of Mrs. Mak makes her performance that much more commendable for playing two completely separate characters and keeping an underlying connection in both. While Director Lee sites Notorious as a comparison, there is a remarkable and chilling moment when Kuang is arguing with his superior in the resistance, trying to extract Wong from the mission before she gets into any further danger. Both men talk about her as if she’s not sitting between them. It’s also the only time anyone has shown any concern for her welfare. She sits still, body trembling and steady tears flowing, but the fluctuations in her voice and the slight shifts in her eyes give away the struggle going on within her. You wonder who’s in there, Wong Chia Chi or Mrs. Mak, as both personalities fight within the young girl for dominance. It’s a tightly controlled, impassioned breakdown that brought me to mind of a less showy version of the Faye Dunaway’s famous “My sister, my daughter” scene from Chinatown.  

Tang’s control and sophistication as Mrs. Mak hearkens back to the Hollywood films of the 1930’s and 40’s, her movements and poses perfect imitations of screen goddesses like Davis and Bergman. In my interview with Tang Wei, I asked about her research and she mentioned specifically her love of Greta Garbo and her beauty and how she used many films from that era to physically create Mrs. Mak’s movements. She was an apt pupil, because Mrs. Mak is the stuff of a William Wyler or Clarence Brown romance, yet under this satin finish of beautiful cheongsams, perfectly marcelled hair and matte ruby cupid’s bow lips, there is Wong Chia Chi, the abandoned country girl, and, as she was on that university stage not long before, she is playing a role. Tang obviously should be commended for the bravery in filming some of the most graphic sex scenes ever filmed for a mainstream Chinese film. I'm there watching with my jaw literally in my hand, like Sebastian the crab from The Little Mermaid. If some of those scenes didn't actually involve penetration then China has come much further in special effects technology than they're letting on. This film could make Tang Wei a pariah or a star in her country, and I’m betting on the latter.

Now, all about Tony. In his response to my question about his collaboration with Leung Chiu-Wai, Ang Lee said a few very interesting things. He mentioned how glad he was that Tony was finally at an age where he had a project they could work on together, and how it was a great honour for him to change his (Tony’s) direction at this part of his career. Clearly, Director Lee in the master of understatement because calling the role of Mr. Yee a mere change in Tony’s career direction is a huge understatement. As with Tang Wei’s Mrs. Mak, Mr. Yee is a role that hangs a lot in the balance for the Asian icon and it is commendable that he opted to be true to his artistic growth as an actor rather than worry about any loss to his tremendous fanbase. Mr. Yee is an ugly man; filthy from the soul out. He is everything the idealistic nationalists say: Yee is very simply a traitor. He collaborates with the Japanese; he brings a reign of terror down on any pockets of resistance against the invaders he can find. His power has corrupted him and you can see the toll it has taken on him physically, his gaunt, haggard looks, and the stoop to his shoulders as if the weight of his misdeeds was upon him. In bringing Yee to life Leung Chiu-Wai has opted for the most unglamourous role of his career in every sense, besides the physical embodiment of Yee, Director Lee has lit him in the most unflattering light available. Harshly illuminated for the world to see is every line and imperfection on Leung Chiu-Wai’s face, and that was a shock. Yee is even blocked and shot to look small in stature. The brutal, ugly physicality of Yee’s sex with Mrs. Mak is not the hearts and violins love scenes that many of Tony’s fans are used to. The explicit nudity and unflinching camerawork during those scenes is surely further than any other major Asian actor has ever gone. It’s a very different Leung Chiu-Wai than we have ever seen ( - and not just cos he’s nekkid), Director Lee told me how he stripped Tony of his well known affectations, signature looks and movements well known to his fans and in doing that Lee has given a new depth to Leung Chiu-Wai’s performance. Yee speaks very little dialogue and yet Tony had to find a way to give some dimension to this monster while allowing him to remain a monster. Yee does indeed have human emotions, but Leung Chiu-Wai’s performance is so balanced that while you have some small grasp on the inner workings of the inscrutable Yee, he doesn’t walk off with your sympathies like a good guy betrayed. Also, there’s not an abundance of screen time for Tony, and in his scenes with the other actors, particularly with newcomer Tang Wei, he is very generous in allowing them to shine. 

The supporting cast is also very solid. Joan Chen’s small role as Mrs. Yee, wife to the viper only she seems to be able to control; her spidery performance is a study in control. At the center of her exclusive social circle, Mrs. Yee basks in the reflected power and privilege being the wife of this feared man beings her, yet her acquisitiveness is a panacea the loneliness of marriage a never present, uninvolved husband. Rochester, NY’s own Wang Leehom is wonderful as the idealistic and nave Kuang Yu Min, the university student who starts Wong Chia Chi on her path to danger and intrigue with a simple invitation to a drama club. He embodies the bluster and bullheadedness of a righteous young college student whose principles matter far more than practicality. He is at an age where he believes he can move the world and too young to realise the consequences of his actions. Wang is the perfect choice for Wong Chia Chi’s first love; handsome and dashing, he has a warm stage presence. After he seeks Wong out once again to resume her seduction of Yee, time and disillusionment have taken their toll on Kuang and he has finally come to question and doubt the motives of the resistance and his own place in involving Wong so heavily. 

Ang Lee employs a wonderful production team including Rodrigo Prieto, who previously captured the wonderful landscapes of Brokeback Mountain to Oscar-worthy perfection. Here, he has to work in much more intimate settings, capturing the feel of Shanghai during World War 2, its balance of the cosmopolitan and impoverished. Many of the scenes involving Wong as Mrs. Mak were swathed in a faint sepia tone, giving those moments an unreality as if looking at an old photograph. The sex scenes, which bore the pioneering uninhibitedness of 1972’s Last Tango in Paris, are shot grittily and slightly grainy, projecting the rawness of the proceedings. Pan Lai’s costumes and production design are impeccable, capturing the sophistication of the period effortlessly. You can see the effect being encased in the glamourous cheongsams, hand tailored suits and uniforms of the schools from that time had in the authentic performances of the actors. 

Lust, Caution is a remarkable achievement for Ang Lee, to have created this controversial film on his own terms, remaining truthful to Ellen Chang’s groundbreaking short story. I was gripped from the first scene and every minute after. Lee’s urged once in a lifetime performances from his cast, his pacing is wonderful and the subject matter is thrilling. Lust, Caution probably won’t get the same notoriety that Brokeback Mountain did (- while the sex is shocking in its graphicness, it is a heterosexual couple, after all), but I found the film just as worthy and significant as its predecessor. I was absolutely enthralled. 

 

~ Mighty Ganesha 

Sept 14th 2007

 

 

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of Focus Features)