Last Tango in Shanghai


There’s a moment in Lust, Caution (Se, Jie) in which you can clearly make out the writing, and this most awkward title’s embedded warning, on the wall. The scene: a humid, tryst-friendly boudoir in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. Our spunky, beauteous resistance heroine, Wang Jiazhi (the flowerlike Tang Wei, whose long, cheongsam-clad stems resemble those of Maggie Cheung in 2000’s In the Mood for Love), and her supposed prey and the movie’s antihero — secret police head, invading-force collaborator, and mild-mannered torturer in bespoke tailoring Mr. Yee (an appropriately ossified Tony Leung) — are caught up in a series of Kama Sutra–esque sexual positions. Even as she masquerades as Mrs. Mak, a rich man’s cheating spouse, Wang is laid bare, in all her full-frontal, erect-nippled splendor, eyes closed and face contorted, as Yee thrusts at her from across the box spring, as intimate and as far away as a spy satellite.

Yee is far from transported. Looking like a slender, slightly leathery brown lizard on a rock, he levels an unblinking, penetrating stare at Wang-Mak, all while eliciting pleasure and pain from his porcelain-fleshed paramour. Both unflinchingly creepy and unintentionally funny, the scene is as liable to draw nervous chuckles as it is to unsettle the tidy arc of this World War II espionage love story. The glare brings to mind golden age porn films, such as The Devil in Miss Jones (1973), in which the onscreen sex and gaze exchanged between actors and spectators are as likely to disrupt as to arouse. It’s as if Chow, the suave, restrained writer in Wong Kar Wai films like the aforementioned Mood and 2046 (2004), also played by Leung, finally got to shed his skintight suits, only to reveal something truly startling: a glance more charged than — whoa — visible scrotum.

"Little Brown Fucking Machines Powered by Rice" is the title of a chapter in professor and filmmaker Celine Parreñas Shimizu’s The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women on Screen and Scene, referring to the myth — and popular Southeast Asian T-shirt slogan — centered on diminutive, impoverished, highly bangable Asian poonanny, available for a price and rhapsodized in confessional doc-cum-reality porns like 101 Asian Debutantes. In that film, Shimizu points out, the gaze that the LBFMPBRs level at the camera, midcoitus, is their only visible sign of agency or power against their camera-wielding johns. Likewise, Leung’s look threatens to tear through the multiple fictions and revolutionary frictions propelling Lust, Caution. And like all spy-versus-spy stories, Lust, Caution hinges on the threat of betrayal — something Eileen Chang reveled in so bitterly in her original incandescent short story, begun in the 1950s and published in 1979, after she finally perfected the rewrite of her own compromising affair with a WWII collaborator.

A fresh-faced country girl possessing unexpected acting skills, Wang is plucked by her revolution-hungry theater group to play a plum part: that of a married femme fatale in the company’s most daring production — the assassination of influential Japanese collaborator Yee, whom Wang will get to via his wife (Joan Chen). But amid the click of mah-jongg tiles, glittering gossip, and decadent shopping sprees by the Yees, Wang comes to wonder who’s zooming whom, as Yee drops confessional hints of his tough days at work torturing her resistance kindred.

Working in tropes of fatalistic love previously explored in Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), director Ang Lee does his best to overlay a sense of both depth and humanism on Chang’s prismatic pessimism — occasionally at the disservice of genuine, complicating complexity. As Wang-Mak and Yee hotbox in an airless, silk shantung–<\d>lined dream world, Lee faithfully fixes on Wang-Mak’s point of view, choosing — like her, perhaps — not to visualize exactly what Yee is up to on his "business" trips to brutalized Nanking. His violence, like his wartime atrocities, is largely invisible, except in the bedroom, making it easier for us to identify with his monster. Yet why not really show it all — to viewers more accustomed to seeing WWII dramas of occupation and resistance through the filter of the European theater — as Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum (1987) and even this year’s other WWII resistance narrative revolving around a would-be Mata Hari trading sex for violence, Black Book, did? In even the most notable instance of explicit sex in the Asian art-house cinema, In the Realm of the Senses (1976), Nagisa Oshima sent his sybaritic hero against the tide of Japanese soldiers, doubtless marching toward Nanking as well. Yet Lust, Caution bends over backward, as if assuming a new, gymnastic sexual position, to find the misguided, miscommunicated affection — for country, for enemy — between lust and caution, only to tumble into the abyss.


Opens Fri/5

Embarcadero Center Cinema

One Embarcadero Center, promenade level, SF

(415) 267-4893