December 26th, 2007

One of the films we picked up on our trip through Wanda on Christmas Eve was Ang Lee/李安’s latest, Lust:Caution/色戒.

It’s quite different from what I expected, in many ways, and I think that’s probably because of all the hype.

And yet it is an Ang Lee film: beautiful, quiet, patient, subtle.

And yet it isn’t: It is brutal and violent and disturbing.

And yet that quiet, patient, subtle beauty is what makes it so harshly, disturbingly, violently brutal.

It’s not easy to write a review of it.


because that’s what you’re all here for, isn’t it?

So is it art or pornography? Well, pleasant surprise the first was the lack of sex in this film whose sex scenes have been the subject of so much discussion. The first sex scenes are when Tang Wei汤唯’s character, Wang Jiazhi, goes into, ahem, “training” for her role as seductress of Mr Yee (Tony Leung梁朝伟), and in those two scenes very little is revealed. It actually takes quite some time for the first of the infamous sex scenes involving Tony Leung and Tang Wei to appear, and they do live up to the hype.

But art or porn? Well, maybe I’m getting this wrong, but I interpreted the sex scenes as showing the brutal, violent, obssessively controlling side of Tony Leung’s Mr Yee. If that is the case, this aspect of his character is better developed through sex than torture, I think, and torture would seem to be the “natural” alternative. Replacing the sex with torture would have made the film simply unwatchable for all but psychopaths. Therefore, I see the sex scenes as being necessary and as art.

And yet….

The first of the infamous scenes looks too much like rape for my comfort. But was it? Or was it consensual? You could argue that by entering the hotel room, Tang Wei’s Wang was giving consent for what came next. And her behaviour in the hotel room suggests she was ready for more than a stimulating discussion of Mrs Yee’s majiang skills. And once Mr Yee’s kissing became rather forceful, Wang did voluntarily begin disrobing…. But then Mr Yee smashed Wang against a wall, tore her qipao open enough for him to get at the desired part of her anatomy, through her on the bed, beat her with his belt, tied her hands behind her back, and had his way with her. Consensual sex? I think a jury would have some difficulty deciding on that matter. But having entered the room, and knowing Mr Yee’s nature, did she have any choice? And then again, she was following orders from her superiors in the Underground. It is a very brutal, very graphic, and very disturbing scene.

But after that the sex becomes more normal, although they do manage to twist themselves into some interesting positions. I’m not surprised at the reports of people injuring themselves trying to imitate Leung and Tang’s acrobatics.

But art or porn? I wouldn’t call it porn, and I do see the artistic necessity of the sex scenes, and yet… I think Lee went further than necessary. I mean, a view of Tony Leung’s bum, legs and scrotum bouncing around as he shags Tang Wei really does nothing to add to my understanding of Mr Yee’s character. And although Tang Wei makes for some very pleasant viewing, the same principle applies. Assuming that the guy in the store was telling the truth and this is the original, uncensored version (I haven’t bothered to check, even though ESWN has made it very easy to do so(you’ll have to scroll down a fair way)), then I think Lee could’ve cut a fair bit of the sex scenes and not affected the artistic integrity of the film.

Is the sex real? From what I’ve read, Lee has refused to comment either way. All I can say is that if the sex is simulated, it’s by far the most realistic simulation of sex I’ve ever seen in a film.

Or put it this way: Considering how much of Leung’s and Tang’s pubic hair we get to see, and how often both sets of pubic hair are in very close proximity to each other, Lee has managed to very artfully not put the most intimate of the intimate parts of the actors’ anatomies on public display.

Is it erotic? Um, yes, but oddly so.  I can see how a lot of people would be turned off by it. The first of the infamous sex scenes is really quite violent and very, very disturbing.


sorry to disappoint you

No, it’s not just sex, and considering how much has been bloviated about the sex scenes, I was surprised, pleasantly so, I should add, to see that there was, in fact, an entire film to watch. A very beautifully filmed, carefully developed, quiet, subtle, sensual film. A brutal, realistic film. A film that walks a razor-thin middle road between all the nasty political positions a story like this could be twisted into.

It’s a coldly realistic film, almost comically so. In the first part of the film, when the group of university students including Wang Lihong/王力宏’s Kuang Yu Min and Tang Wei’s Wang Jiazhi are trying to set up an assassination of Tony Leung’s Mr Yee, the students come across as naive idealists, full of passion and desire, devoid of ability. Good at their studies, no good at the nasty business of resisting the occupier and its puppet government.

The scene where they kill Tou Chung Hua’s Lao Wu is a perfect example: A mad tussle of several amateurs with no training or skill in martial arts versus an old veteran. On Kuang Yu Min’s first thrust at Lao Wu’s belly, the knife bounces of Lao Wu and out of Kuang Yu Min’s hand, cutting Kuang Yu Min. The second thrust sends the knife in, but the students seem to think Lao Wu should drop dead immediately. What follows is a mad orgy of attempted murder as each of the boys, one by one, eyes wild with tears and fear and anger and vengeance, stabs Lao Wu as many times as they can bear, while the dying Lao Wu tries to escape. Eventually Kuang Yu Min grows some balls, walks down the stairs Lao Wu had slid halfway down, and breaks his neck to finish off the mad mess.

Yeah, it’s a brutal film too. But what makes the violence so incredibly brutal is the film’s calm, quiet, subtle beauty.

The good news is that, unlike the sex, the violence is kept to only what is essential, and mostly happens off-screen.

Just as what makes Mr Yee’s violence so brutal is his quiet, perfectly courteous, refined urbanity.

It’s a complex film. Mr Yee and Wang Jiazhi start off as friends through Mrs Yee (and the machinations of the gang of would be assassins Wang is a part of), the friendship grows into something stronger, but their first sesssion in bed is something more akin to rape than love-making, and yet they seem to fall in love, and the feeling certainly seems to be mutual, and then….

….well, is Wang assassinated with the other members of the Underground? We see her lined up with them, second in line, in fact, and the gun raised and pointed at Kuan Yu Min’s head, and then….

…Mr Yee tells Mrs Yee to tell anybody who asks that Wang has returned to Hong Kong. And what is that complex mix of emotions he feels as he sits on the bed in the room Wang occupied when she stayed in the Yee house in Shanghai?

And it’s a brilliant fim. Ang Lee at his best. The man is a genius.


yeah, because so many people care what I think

The sex is a bit excessive (although Tang Wei is very easy on the eye), but less than expected considering the hype and bloviation. But it’s a masterpiece. Absolutely. One worth watching many more times (and not just for Tang Wei). So watch it.


no, this is not going to turn into a movie review blog

Nanking. Another Christmas Eve purchase.

2 Responses to “Lust:戒:Caution:色”

  1. Matthew Stinson Says:

    My friends and I saw the cut version of the film and wondered if the more explicit sex was primal enough to suggest a closer connection between Yee and Wang. I’m going to try and download the uncut copy and see if it leaves a different impression on me than the censored edition.

  2. wangbo Says:

    I’m sure it will leave a different impression. I’d have to watch the cut version to be sure, but I suspect the extra sex will add nothing to your understanding of their relationship. And I suspect that the same thing could’ve been conveyed with less explicit sex scene with a greater focus on their foreplay and less on their naked bodies. Comments like this: “He then adds that Tony Leung has projected aspects of Lee’s own character into Yee. A curious remark, certainly, given that Yee isn’t a remotely sympathetic character. He is a quisling, collaborating with the Japanese and overseeing the torture and killing of Chinese rebels. Then again, it is Yee’s personal and sexual life that intrigues Lee. “I desire it but I cannot do it. I make it into a movie. He projects a lot of that part of myself. It is a romance I never really experienced that I was longing for. It is almost like a dream.”” (from this
    are telling, I think. It was more about his own personal self-expression, or exploration of something he could never realise in real life, and less about the story he was telling.