(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: Set against the backdrop of a transforming country, a young woman finds herself swept up in a radical plot to assassinate a ruthless and secretive intelligence agent. As she immerses herself in her role as a cosmopolitan seductress, she becomes entangled in a dangerous game that will ultimately determine her fate.
– From DVD Production Notes
Intimacy is painful. Nothing drives this home like Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution. I’ll fully admit that I don’t own it because of its espionage plot, historical relevance, period detail or commentary on deception and performance. I own it because it depicts the psychological destruction of two people, mostly at the hands of the other.
This is shown through sex, and the experience of watching it is like watching a man and woman annihilate each other. Love, lust, control, fear- all of it happens at once, and when I first saw this all I could think is WHAT THE HELL AM I WATCHING.
I haven’t talked to many people about the sex scenes in Caution, but when I do I feel like they don’t get it. And they can’t, technically. I can throw out words like “eerie,” “intense,” “blistering,” “mind-bending” or “frightening” but they simply aren’t enough. The sex in this film is beyond words. After all, that is what sex is in the first place. It is an act beyond language.
What’s interesting is that this film can’t sustain itself without those scenes. Likewise, the scenes can’t survive without their context. Both are integral to the plot. Without seeing these interactions between Wong Chia-chi (Tang Wei) and Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chui-wai) a viewer would never understand how they effect everything else. This is particularly true for Wong Chia-chi, whose entire existence is changed by the man she has been trained to trap and betray. In fact, the viewer doesn’t fully understand that effect until one of her superiors orders her to “keep him trapped.” What follows is the beginning of a small breakdown. She replies:
“What trap are you talking about? My body? What do you take him for? He knows better than you how to put on an act. He not only gets inside me, he worms his way into my heart like a snake. Deeper. All the way in. I take him in like a slave. I play my part faithfully so I, too, can get to his heart. Every time he hurts me until I bleed and scream. Then he is satisfied. Then he feels alive. In the dark, only he knows it’s all real.”
The question is, why would a young woman allow herself to be subjected to so much pain? This is one of the biggest enigmas in Caution, with Wong Chia-chi at the center. Although Leung’s Mr. Yee is a strongly shaded, conflicted man, the film is a character study of this woman. There is a sadness and isolation in her finite nature, and she seems to be one of those people who are lost in the margins of history. Without the narrative we’re watching, there is nothing left of her: no possessions, no personal records, no recollections from people who really knew what she was up to. She vanishes. There isn’t even a public record of her death.
Wong Chia-chi’s origins and trajectory establish her someone of little consequence to everyone else. She is abandoned by her father and brother. She is used by her friends and comrades. She is ripped off by an aunt (presumably without her knowledge). Ultimately, she is a pawn for the Chinese Resistance, but her motivations for submitting to this are never quite clear. All we know for sure is that the first person who grabs ahold and deeply touches her is a murderer, torturer and rapist.
He is her target: Mr. Yee.
It doesn’t take long before there’s a struggle for control between them. Wong Chia-chi seems to have the same effect on him, in spite of his better judgment. “I haven’t believed anyone in a long time,” Yee tells her, and by then you know both of them are in trouble. She is lying but consumed by him, and he believes that lie, making her his weakness.
It is when the relationship moves beyond the physical that it becomes- somehow- more disturbing, no matter how poignant it can be. Near the end of the film the two meet in private, sharing a meal, nothing else. This is the moment when real intimacy happens. There is an emotional connection, and now the trouble they’re in has only intensified. It’s the beginning of the end.
Caution plays with its timeline, revealing that most of its events are set in motion by Wong Chia-Chi’s infatuation with a young radical, Kuang Yumin (Leehom Wang). Yumin proves to be a man who returns her feelings but doesn’t act on them- instead he places her in danger over and over again. What neither of them can predict is how complicated the situation will get, or just how much she can take.
Wong Chia-chi warns Yee at the last moment and spares his life, and his escape is so quick it made my head spin. So do his actions afterwards. The end of the film belongs to him and him alone, resonating with loneliness, loss and a dread of things to come. The camera lingers on objects that remind him of her-
– and, much like Lee’s previous film, Brokeback Mountain (2005), you know the damage has been done. It’s permanent.
Many viewers complain that Caution is tedious and dull. Lee has gone on record to say that this viewpoint is subjective: “American audiences thought that [it] was too slow, whereas Chinese audiences thought that the movie moved too fast!” In my case the pacing doesn’t bother me at all. It does remind me of Alessandro Baricco’s novel, Silk (1996), though. It’s a slight book, full of explanations, repetitions and seems rather emotionless. Then, near the end, an erotic letter is dropped into the text and it flays the story wide open.
Once again, it’s funny what sex can do to a plot.
The more I thought about it I realized that a film like Caution captures the minutiae and circumstances of a life, then moments or situations beyond one’s control. It catalogs instances that, perhaps, are beyond an outsider’s understanding. They are strictly Wong Chia-chi and Yee’s, theirs to revel in or regret. Not ours.
Perhaps that’s the strangest thing about it all, being exposed to that sort of thing. Still, I can’t help but respect Ang Lee for succeeding at it.