Lust, Caution

From Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding 18

Jump to: navigation, search
Lust, Caution: The FIlm

Lust, Caution (Se, jie) is a 2007 film by Academy-Award winning director Ang Lee. The film is an adaptation of Eileen Chang’s short story Lust, Caution, which itself was loosely based on an actual event that took place in 1939-1940. The film is noted for its controversial ten minutes of sex scenes, which reportedly took 100 hours to shoot.


Background: Ang Lee


Taiwan, a country colonized by China and Japan.

Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee was born in 1954 in Chaozhou, Pingtung, Taiwan. His parents fled to Taiwan following his paternal grandparents’ execution for being landowners during the Communist Revolution that led to the Chinese Nationalists’ defeat after the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Lee’s father was a high school principal. Lee attended the Taiwan Academy of Art, and, in 1978, he left Taiwan to attend college in the United States. He first matriculated at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theater in 1982. Lee moved on to earn his Master’s at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he made several accolade-garnering short films.

Though one of his projects earned Lee attention from Hollywood in the form of an agent from William Morris, he spent the next several years struggling to get projects off the ground while raising his two young sons. His wife at this time was the sole financial supporter of the household, which in Lee's culture, was considered shameful. In 1990, Lee entered two scripts into a national competition in Taiwan and placed first and second. Lee made his feature-directing debut with his first-place script, “Pushing Hands” (1992), a drama that examined the clash of cultures when a father comes to live with his son in America. But it was his second-place script for “The Wedding Banquet” (1993) that propelled his career and transformed Lee into an internationally acclaimed director. A comedy that explored gender, sexuality, and race, “The Wedding Banquet” told the story of a gay New York man and a Chinese immigrant woman entering a marriage of convenience to satisfy the man’s traditional Taiwanese parents and to facilitate the woman with getting a green card. The film was an international hit, earning over $30 million worldwide and won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and an Academy Award nomination in the same category.

Lust, Caution

Lee went on to direct yet another international hit, "Eat Drink Man Woman" (1994), a seriocomic film that depicted an aging father and master chef who displays his love for his three grown daughters by cooking for them. He then was hired to direct "Sense and Sensibility" (1995), his first English-language film. Adapted from Jane Austen's classic, and starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, the film earned rave reviews, many of which singled out Lee's nuanced approach to the comedy of manners about two very different sisters who struggle to find love. “Sense and Sensibility” received seven Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.[1]

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000) was adapted from a popular Chinese folk story.
"Brokeback Mountain" (2005) was a sensational hit, and won Best Director at the Academy Awards for director Ang Lee. Many considered the film to have Lee's signature "Oriental" undertone, as it dealt with restrained inner torment.

In 2000, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” a historical romance and martial arts movie, was released. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was a massive hit all across the world, with its eventual revenues far exceeding its budget. Its release instantly made newcomer Zhang Ziyi a star. It picked up the Oscar trophy for Best Foreign Language Film. Due to the overwhelming international success of “Crouching Tiger”, it was only a matter of time until Lee was approached to direct a big budget tent poles for Hollywood. "The Hulk" was released in 2003 and "Brokeback Mountain" in 2005. While “The Hulk” did not receive positive review, “Brokeback Mountain”, which cast Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as a pair of rugged ranch hands who work together on a sheep drive, only to end up having a painful love affair that spans several decades, earned Lee an Academy Award for Best Director, and an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.[2]

Most recently, Ang Lee has filmed “Lust, Caution” (2007), and “Taking Woodstock” (2009), about the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in 1969.


Ang Lee is known for his diverse works and broad appeal, crossing high and low culture, East and West. His films have been used to study globalization and its effect on the film world. His films not only capture the essence of Chinese culture and family dynamics as skillfully as they do American life and iconography, but also express the commonalities and conflicts between the Eastern and Western traditions. Despite such diverse subject matter, Lee manages to find common themes in whatever material he is working on. As he himself is an outsider to his native Taiwan, having spent most of his adult life in the US, and an outsider to America, being foreign-born and raised in a far different culture, he often focuses on the singular exploration of the relationship between society and the individual, or outsider. [3]

Other themes, like father-daughter relationships, sentimental and romantic entanglement, and repression are often present in Ang Lee's works.[4]

Lust, Caution (Film)

Lee returned to his Chinese roots yet again to direct “Lust, Caution” (2007), a highly controversial period drama that earned both critical praise and heavy government censorship. Based on the short story of the same name by Chinese author Eileen Chang, Lust, Caution was produced on a budget of approximately $15 million. It was primarily filmed in a newly constructed set inside Shanghai Film Studios. The set was a replica of Shanghai's Nanjing Rd. W. during the 1940s.

"Lust, Caution is about occupying and being occupied…the peril here is falling in love with your occupier."-Ang Lee, 2007

The film starred Hong Kong film star Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, and newcomer Tang Wei, a little known Mainland Chinese actress. For her role as lead actress in the film, Tang Wei was chosen from among ten thousand actresses for the role.

Plot Summary

In Shanghai, 1942, the World War II Japanese occupation of the city continues. Mrs. Mak, a sophisticated, upper-class woman, walks into a café in a posh neighborhood. She places a phone call filled with coded signals that prompt a cell of resistance agents to jump into action. They begin loading their weapons. As Mrs. Mak sips her coffee and then sits and waits, she remembers how her story began several years earlier. The film goes into flashback.

Hong Kong. 1938

Wong Chia Chi, a shy, naïve girl, has been abandoned by her father in China during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Her father has left her to remarry another woman in the United Kingdom. To escape the war, Chia Chi flees from Shanghai to Hong Kong where she is enrolled in the Lingnan University. Here, a fellow student named Kuang Yu Min coerces Chia Chi into joining his patriotic drama club. As the club’s new lead actress, Chia Chi begins to find her calling in the theater, inspiring audiences and even captivating Kuang. The two begin to fall in love.

Riled by the drama troupe’s well-received propaganda performances, Kuang convinces his small group of followers to embark on a radical assassination plan to kill Mr. Yee, an agent of the puppet government set up by the Japanese Government in China. Each member has a role to play in the assassination plan. The most important part is played by Chia Chi, who is chosen to take on the undercover role of Mrs. Mak, the young and beautiful wife of a Hong Kong based trading company tycoon. She is to engage in an affair with Mr. Yee, and then lure him into an isolated area where the other students will kill him. She thus undergoes a transformation from the shy, inexperienced university student into the glamorous Mrs. Mak.

Making her way into the Hong Kong social circle, she befriends Mrs. Yee, who invites her over to her home to play Mahjong. There, she captures the attention of Mr. Yee and repeatedly attempts to draw him into a location where he can be assassinated, though the students ultimately fail at the assassination. Since Chia Chi is still a virgin, she sleeps with Liang Jun-Sheng, another resistance fighter, to prepare for her lustful affair with Mr. Yee. The two practice every night, and Kuang’s upset over listening to them further manifests his love for Chia Chi. But not long after, Mr. and Mrs. Yee suddenly move back to Shanghai, leaving the students unable to complete the plan. While they pack up to leave the rented apartment, an armed subordinate of Yee turns up unannounced and realizes that "Mr. & Mrs. Mak" are not who they claim they are. To save themselves, and out of hatred, the students kill the subordinate and go into hiding.

Lust, Caution

Shanghai, 1942

In Shanghai, an impoverished Chia Chi goes through her daily rituals. One day, while returning home, Kuang is waiting for her on the street. He tells her he is now an undercover agent of the Government of the Republic of China, who are seeking to overturn the Japanese occupation force and their puppet government in China. There is a renewed plan, by an organized resistance movement, to assassinate Yee. By this time, Mr. Yee has become the head of secret police department under the puppet government and is responsible for mass capturing and executing resistance agents who are working for the Government of the Republic of China. Chia Chi agrees to join, and once again becomes the mistress of Mr. Yee. During their first encounter Yee is sadistic and violent, but becomes more passionate and caring with her. Chia Chi becomes embroiled in an inhuman emotional conflict as she emotionally bound to Mr. Yee and yet must kill him. Mr. Yee buys Chia Chi an expensive and extremely rare six carat pink diamond ring. Since he and Chia Chi enter the jewelry shop alone, the Chinese resistance foresee a chance to assassinate Mr. Yee.

The next time Chia Chi and Mr. Yee meet, she asks him to go to the jewellery store with her to collect the diamond ring. As they enter the shop, she notices several resistance agents waiting to spring the trap. But when she sees the ring, she truly believes Mr. Yee's love for her, and tells him to flee. Mr. Yee runs out of the shop and jumps into his waiting car, escaping the assassination attempt. By the end of the day the resistance group including Kuang and Chia Chi herself are captured. It is revealed that Mr. Yee's deputy has been aware of the resistance cell, but did not inform Mr. Yee, both because of Mr. Yee's relationship with Chia Chi and because the deputy had hoped to use this opportunity to catch the resistance cell leader. Mr. Yee signs their death warrants and the resistance group members, including Chia Chi, are shot and executed. In the end of the film, Mr. Yee sits on Chia Chi's empty bed in the family guest room, and Mrs. Yee comes by the room, asking him what has occurred. Mr. Yee strictly informs his wife that Mrs. Mak is gone, and that she should not ask any questions. He then leaves the room, and the image of the bed, remaining on the screen, fades to black. [5]

Lust, Caution

Themes and Motifs

Technologized Visuality

Though the film, Lust, Caution, has been deemed quite different from Eileen Chang’s semi-autobiography, ironically the film medium brings the two stories closer than ever. In the same way that Chang’s short, literary text delivers a sharp and pointed message, a film is composed of snapshots that also must deliver condensed meaning for the viewers. A short story operates just the same way that a camera does: it must quickly capture life in a frozen a moment in time, with use of minimal background detail. Writing is often done visually, and here, with both the film and the short story, the question is raised about whether it is the picture that creates the text or the text that creates the picture.

Film is a tremendously powerful medium for retelling a story. A medium that simultaneously utilizes technology and visuality, it has facilitated the development of a consciousness, both individual and national. Chia Chi often goes to the movie theater to better understand herself and the story that she is acting out. Indeed, the film that plays within the film turns her ordeal into a spectacle that she can watch, out-of-body, over and over again. With too much suppressed inside, she can only take control over her emotions via a connection with the detached form of Ingrid Bergman on the movie screen.

Film has also allowed the exploration of the gaze, which can be seen physically onscreen but not via a literary medium such as the short story. Lust, Caution contains many scenes in which seeing is a form of power and being seen is a form of powerlessness. Other national gazes are probed as well. These include the gaze of the Japanese on the Chinese, the Chinese on the Japanese, the Europeans on the Chinese, and the Chinese amongst themselves. The audience is actively or passively involved in the film depending on the extent to which they are spectators. For example, in the sex scenes, the audience is brought close to the bodies, but during the propaganda play the audience is distanced away from the stage, and thus assumes a more passive role towards the events unfolding onscreen. Using camera proximity, the audience can go in close to feel what the individual feels, or move farther away to experience what the masses experience. Film can use physical distance to position the audience and the actors metaphysically farther or closer from each other. With film, there is therefore a sense of modern self-consciousness, collective victimization, and national spectacle.

Deceit and Role-Play

An espionage film, “Lust Caution” is rampant with deceit and lies. There is the notion in the film that the characters are continuously lying in both their love lives and in their political lives. Chia Chi pretends to be Mrs. Mak in order to trap Mr. Yee for the resistance fighters, but at an emotional level, she is also pretending to love Mr. Yee. Mr. Yee desires Chia Chi specifically because he suspects her of not truly loving him and of being a spy. This sense of lying and deceit blurs the boundaries between the stage and the real world, and between existence and illusion. The director asserts that Eileen Chang “understood playacting and mimicry as something by nature cruel and brutal: animals, like her characters, use camouflage to evade their enemies and lure their prey”. Yee wants Wong Chia Chi not in spite of his suspicion, but “it is precisely because he suspects her that he desires her. . . And so lust and caution are functions of each other, not because we desire what is dangerous, but because our love is, no matter how earnest, an act, and therefore always an object of suspicion.”


Lust, Caution

For a highly sentimental film, the characters themselves are unsentimental. Mr. and Mrs. Yee are never shown fighting onscreen, and any torture scenes are eliminated. Ang Lee thus chooses to push forth some images, but pull back on others. The acting itself is very held back. The restraint shown by both the actors and the director is characteristic of Ang Lee’s work.

Restraint is often connected to tragedy. Here, the protagonist is not embroiled in just a human-to-human conflict, but something greater: the conflict of self-expression against social convention. Chia Chi is a strong-minded protagonist, who quashes her inner passions and desires for the good of her country. It is with this larger conflict in mind when Ang set his films against a sweeping historical background. Against such a vastness, Chia Chi cannot possibly assert her individuality. There is the sense that Chia Chi is aware of how much her restraint is killing her, as there is a scene in which she cries while watching a representation of her life's story in the movie theater. Kuang, too, shows restraint, never openly confessing his love for Chia Chi until the very end of the film. He allows his love for his country to surpass his love for Chia Chi. Their unconsummated love story is yet another face to the tragedy that occurs in the movie.

Reception to Lust, Caution

The sex scenes in this movie were controversial. Many believed Lust, Caution was too violent and sensual to openly distribute even with an R rating.

At its release, Lust, Caution was labeled by some as pornographic. In filming the sex scenes, Lee did not pan away discreetly or show close-ups of the lead actors’ faces, rather, he allowed their naked bodies do the acting. Whether the sex scenes were "real" or simulated has since been the object of much speculation.

The end of filming for the cast and crew.

Due to the explicit sex scenes in Lust, Caution, it received the NC-17 rating in North America. The Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board cited the film's graphic sexuality for its decision. Director Ang Lee, producer James Schamus, and Focus Features did not submit to the MPAA by deleting some shots in order to get an “R.” By just cutting a few shots, this movie would have matched the "R" standard by the MPAA. However in China, where the film was made, the policy was "cut or no deal." All movies have to be made to be suitable for audiences of all ages. In order to pass Chinese censors, Lee cut 30 minutes of scenes in the movie. The film was thus heavily-edited before its release in China, though it played in its full, uncut version in Hong Kong.[6]

Worldwide, Lust, Caution grossed $64,574,876.

Tang Wei and Wong Lee Hom at the "Lust, Caution" premiere in New York City

The Making of the Film, and Interviews

Ang Lee has been quoted as saying, "American audiences thought that Lust, Caution, was too slow, whereas Chinese audiences thought that the movie moved too fast!"

Lust, Caution

Ang Lee discussed his initial hesitations towards filming Lust, Caution. When he first read Eileen Chang's short story, he was horrified. He thought that she had defiled modern China's story in World War II, perhaps the most patriotic, revered war ever fought for the country. He found it shocking that Eileen Chang would dare undercut the powerful, masculine war with a sensual, feminine undertone. Later on, he says he realized the potential that such a story could have. It could change the lens through which China's Great War against Japan would be viewed. It was something completely new and different that no one had done before. He also says that he considered himself the male version of Chia Chi. Beside him is lead actress Tang Wei, who also spoke about her role in the film. Tang Wei also described her experiences on-set, and the set itself, which was completely built from scratch for the purposes of this film. In particular, she mentioned the magic she felt when she heard a bell sound on a trolly car moving past her as she took her first steps onto the movie set. To her, it was as if she were walking back into time.[7]

Ang Lee, Tang Wei, and Taiwanese-American pop star Wong Lee Hom, who played Kuang in Lust, Caution, was interviewed on the Red Carpet in 2007.

Interviews from the DVD Release:


  1. Berry, Chris. (2003) Wedding Banquet: A Family (Melodrama) Affair, in Chris Berry (Ed.), Chinese Films in Focus: 25 New Takes (London: British Film Institute).
  2. The Internet Movie Database, “Ang Lee”, accessed 12 April 2010.
  3. Berry, Michael. (2005) “Ang Lee: Freedom in Film”, in Michael Berry (Ed.), Speaking in Images: Interviews with Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers (New York: Columbia University Press).
  4. Dilley, Whitney Crothers. (2007) The Cinema of Ang Lee: The Other Side of the Screen (London: Wallflower Press).
  5. Chang, Eileen (story), Ling, Wang Hui and Schamus, James (screenplay). (2007) Lust, Caution: The Story, the Screenplay, and the Making of the Film (New York: Pantheon Books).
  6. The Internet Movie Database, "Lust, Caution", accessed April 12 2010.
  7. Lust, Caution. 2007. DVD Interviews with Tang Wei, Ang Lee.
Personal tools