Monday, September 8, 2008

Movie Mondays - Lust, Caution

Welcome to the premiere of Movie Mondays.

I figure the title is self-explanatory enough.

I'm a movie buff. I may not be able to deconstruct Kurosawa with a bunch of film geeks, but I do enjoy a better-than-average affinity for the entertainment industry. I don't get to the movie theater all that much any more so when I do, I try to choose the films I can't stand to miss (The Dark Knight) or update my Netflix queue with other, more obscure titles I want to see due to positive buzz (The Lives of Others). The does mean that I can be a few months behind things but that's just the beauty of Kiersten timing.

My relationship with Netflix has pretty much stalled in recent months as life had knocked me upside the head with Other Things that needed attention. But one rare (and slightly pathetic) Friday night when I was home alone with nothing to do (or, rather, too much I should be doing but wasn't) I picked up Lust, Caution from the local video shop (will we ever call it the DVD store? The Blue Ray Store? Hmm.)

Caveat: This is not a movie for anyone with a conservative bent. It is very sexually graphic.

Lust, Caution is director Ang Lee's most recent film and his first in many years (or ever?) in Chinese. It tells the story of Japanese-occupied Shanghai in World War II and a young woman, Mai Tai Tai, who goes undercover to seduce and set up Mr. Yee, a Japanese collaborator who is rather highly placed in the secret service.

So basically a Very Bad Dude.

Mai's mission is to set Mr. Yee up for
assassination but the more time she spends with him, the more conflicted her loyalties become. Will she betray him or will she turn on her resistance comrades to save his life? It evokes shades of Black Book, Paul Verhoeven's racy thriller during which a Jewish woman goes undercover in a Nazi command center as an Aryan secretary and eventual mistress to a high-ranking Nazi officer.

Further synopsis for Lust, Caution can be found on IMDB. Have at it.

Ang Lee shoots beautiful films - or rather his DOP does - but the end result is helmed by Lee. I still don't think he was the right man to direct Sense and Sensibility - I lay its pacing flaws firmly at his feet - and I wouldn't be nearly so fond of that film without Emma Thompson and Alan Richman, but it is beautifully shot and crafted. Brokeback Mountain is likewise stunning in its construction and Lee's lyrical sense of place, evidenced again in Lust, Caution, is breathtaking. (This doesn't however, translate to the beautiful mess that was The Hulk.)

Lust, Caution
itself resonates with a visual feast of colors and culture whose changing hues illuminate the changing circumstances of the characters. I particularly enjoyed the mahjong scenes with the high-ranking wives and how vicious and catty they could be under the veneer of social discourse, gossip, and game playing. A gathering of lazy lionesses sharpening their claws in a gilded cage.

But I never really engaged with this film and I think the fault lies predominantly on its leading lady.

Wei Tang, the actress playing Mai Tai Tai, gives a wooden performance that fluctuates between overblown dramatic distress and a blank slate expression with the occasional seductive gaze or sexually contorted facial features thrown in for irregular variety. She is our window into this world, our heroine, yet she had as much charisma as a dandelion. Except I like dandelions. She's beautiful, no question, and the clothes and fashions displayed on her slight figure are stunning period pieces, but outside of being a particularly pleasant clothes pole - nothing.

But what really ticked me off, and what has kept this film kicking around my head for weeks, is Mai Tai Tai's stupid, ridiculous, totally asinine choice at the end. It was somewhere around one AM when I finished the film and I literally said to (OK, yelled at) the television "That's it? You stupid twit!"

For a seven-carat, canary diamond ring, she betrays everything - AND THEY ALL DIE. What is the deal with that? She didn't even get to keep the ring!

The resistance fighters' plan was to kill Mr. Yee as he and Mai Tai Tai visit the jewelers to collect the ring he'd had commissioned for her. Overcome by her lover's presentation of this ring and its accompanying silent declaration of love, she confesses all with the single admonition "Run". At least in Black Book, the Nazi lover was honorable, working from inside the beast to aid its victims and countermand the worst of the power abuses by his colleagues. Ergo, the heroine's eventual love and consequential switching of loyalties make sense. Plus, she still doesn't betray her comrades. Here, Mr. Yee has virtually no redeeming qualities and displays some of his most vicious tendencies in the "love" scenes. But Mai is so overcome by her feelings for him that she betrays everything -and everyone - else.


It doesn't help that Mai's crack group of neophyte resistance fighters never show up for the actual killing. If there's one thing I hate, it's a delayed assassination. (To be fair, it's implied that they were rounded up by secret police before they could go through with it, but that just makes her choice even more ridiculous as she could have escaped before the police came for her.) Then the fool girl GOES HOME!! Because they'd never think to look for her there. (Did I mention she's living in Mr. Yee's house as a guest of his wife? Bloody brilliant.)

Next thing we know, Mai and all her friends and compatriots are being shot in the head.


Sure, we can extrapolate that the revelation of Mr. Yee's duplicity will lead to his own denouement, but Ang Lee chooses to leave that determination up to the viewer. Now I'm not opposed to an ambiguous conclusion, especially when it stimulates thought and conversation. I mulled over the layers of meaning in the conclusion to the movie The Prestige for days and talked it out with several people because my brain was just rocked. The revelations at the end changed my perspectives on all that had come before in the film and the more I thought about it, the more fascinated I became. It's brilliant, provocative storytelling.

This isn't.

I'm sure that Ang Lee has themes embedded in all of this that I'm just failing to fully realize, but that's because I cannot get past this girl's decisions. I have no sympathy for a heroine who not only can't bloody well keep herself alive with some fairly basic self-preservation - like Run Away! Or Don't Warn the Mark! - but her actions and frankly, weaknesses, kills all her friends along with her. Unforgivable. And worse, nothing overtly is gained from this "sacrifice". At least in something like 300 - extreme, cartoon-like (oops, sorry, graphic novel-like) execution aside - there was purpose and an overall triumph from their sacrifice (and the hot, sweaty, totally cut male bodies didn't hurt either.)

I love complex heroines. Frankly, I prefer them, and I suppose that Mai's weakness and ultimate failure can be seen as the complexity of her character; a woman with the strength and ability to subjugate herself to her role as femme fatale to achieve (in her eyes) a noble aim loses everything by succumbing to the magnetism and allure of her victim. But I'm still left with an overall response of You stupid twit.

I suspect, in the end, that may reveal more about me than it does the film.

Grade: D

1 comment:

  1. Hmmmm......leaving this one alone. Having not seen the movie - and being one of those "conservative minded folks" - I just perused your comments to look for any "Kierstenisms" that may have slipped in. And - my head is pounding so - whatever. I DID read your blog today, though!!!