Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Lust, Caution

Ang Lee's Lust, Caution is a slick piece of cinematic entertainment weighted with a significance that derives mostly from its turbulent historical setting, but why such a formula need automatically exclude a satisfying visual program is a question that has too frequently needed to be asked. It has become the function of the "well-crafted film" to smoothly transport viewers from one plot point to the next, taking in the gravity of the subject matter with ample consideration, while ignoring such "lesser" concerns as aesthetics. Writing in 1996, Jonathan Rosenbaum noted, "take Apollo 13, Leaving Las Vegas, Dead Man Walking and six others of this year's Oscar winners, and I doubt you'll find a hint of... aesthetic liftoff anywhere." Lest the reader reject the comparison, noting that the films Rosenbaum cites are Hollywood prestige pictures and Lee's movie is a Chinese-language art-house picture, it should be noted that Lust, Caution, despite its arty trappings and its director's Taiwanese provenance, is every bit as slickly-crafted as any mainstream American picture and every bit as much designed for the viewer's easy delectation, provided that delectation is based on considerations of pacing and historical gravity and doesn't demand a correspondingly gratifying visual conception.

Still, Lee outdoes most of the Hollywood crowd at their own game, which is why Village Voice critic Nathan Lee's poorly-considered objections to the film on the grounds of boredom are especially surprising (he describes the "yawns [being] stifled" in the screening room). The film is deliberately crafted to exclude the possibility of boredom. Every trick in the entertainer's bag is discharged. When the action threatens to drag, Ang Lee brings in the comical antics of an amateur theater troupe turned would-be revolutionary outfit to neutralize the threat of a too immodest insistence on his own seriousness. When a certain setting has served its purpose, Lee smoothly cuts forward several years in time, shuttling his story between Hong Kong and Shanghai and keeping the action fresh and immediate. The film is expertly paced, smoothly modulated and effortless in its shifting between modes of exposition (suspense, high drama, low comedy) and it is in these qualities, rather than in any aesthetic pleasures, that the viewer must look for his sustenance. Ang Lee reminds us in every scene that he is one of the most successful screen entertainers working today.

In her review, Manhola Dargis objects that the film "feels at once overpadded and underdeveloped: it's all production design and not enough content." I suppose it depends on what one means by content. If it's a question of a sharply defined narrative, a specific and clearly evoked historical setting and characters sketched with enough complexity to carry the film convincingly, all arranged into a seamless narrative conception, then Lust, Caution has no shortage of content. If the film lacks the "psychological depth" that Dargis requires and it is, perhaps, a little obtuse on questions of character motivation, we can't fault it too much on those grounds, since the complex psychological portrait is one rarely achieved in the cinematic medium, a medium that requires, at most, a convincing presence on the actor's part that gives the illusion of psychological coherency, but can never hope to capture the complexity of a corresponding treatment in more expansive forms such as the novel. No, film must seek its artistic triumphs elsewhere.

Ultimately, then, the film's weakness is not one of narratological content or characterization, but one of aesthetic conception. Dargis notes the film's heavy emphasis on "production design" and, indeed the settings, whether exterior (the streets of Shanghai and Hong Kong) or interior (the lavishly appointed residences of the film's wealthy characters), seem thoroughly studied, but Lee's unexacting eye for composition renders these settings continually flat and lifeless. In the film's opening sequence, he seems impatient to move his camera as frequently as possible, indulging in a series of lightning quick pans between the constituent elements of his mise-en-scène. Later, he settles down and shows less anxiety to move the camera, but even when he holds it in place, he fails to convincingly frame his images, preferring a drab and seemingly arbitrary scenic arrangement, as if a too artful composition would detract from the insistent demands of the film's plotting. The filming of character interactions hew strictly to shot/reverse-shot conventions and never does Lee seem interested in departing from any of the standard techniques common to the commercial filmmaker. But what is most disappointing is that, even within these conventions, Lee does not know how to properly view his characters within their settings and leaves us instead with a series of uninspired compositions which miss the aesthetic possibilities that the film's content continually opens up.

Much has been made about the film's sex scenes, the series of graphic encounters between Tony Leung and screen newcomer Tang Wei which famously earned the film an NC-17 rating. How, then, do these scenes register with the viewer? They are brutal, impassioned and absolutely essential to the film's program. The film's plot revolves around a young revolutionary, Wong Chia Chi (Wei) who insinuates herself into the household of Mr. Yee (Leung), a brutal and high-ranking member of the Chinese collaborationist government during World War II. By gaining sufficient proximity to Yee's person, an access that can only be obtained by becoming his lover (Yee is notably cautious and never allows himself to be placed at a disadvantage), Wong plans to assassinate the traitorous official. Apart from the important role they play in the unfolding narrative, the scenes drive home the pure physicality of the sex act (particularly in the sadistic touches that Yee brings to the proceedings) and allows the viewer access to the intimacy that Wong is forced to enter into with her victim, an intimacy which ultimately complicates her feelings for Yee and undermines her project. The graphic depiction of sex, in all its contortions, is the only way to successfully illustrate the potency of the act, which has too often been taken for granted as a character motivation in the cinema, while remaining entirely off-screen, relegated to the viewer's imagination. If sex, especially when pursued with such intensity, inevitably alters one's perceptions of the other party, then only by giving ample expression to that act are we made to feel the necessity of such an alteration, most obviously in Wong, but also, to a lesser degree, in the seemingly impassive Mr. Yee. In these scenes, Ang Lee finally comes alive and it is only here that he seems concerned with providing aesthetic satisfaction. If his compositions are still generally uninspired, his choreography makes up for it. These scenes, which don't make their first appearance until roughly two-thirds of the way through the picture, are the only sequences which transcend the pure entertainment of the rest of the work and stand on their own as fully realized set-pieces. If Lee could have brought that sense of cinematic exploration to the rest of the film, he might really have created something worthwhile. As it is, he delivers a slickly-crafted entertainment that only occasionally threatens to become anything more significant.

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