There is a moment towards the end of Lust, Caution where the two main characters give each other a series of looks. It lasts for quite a while, there is no dialogue. It's not necessary. The protagonists tell each other what they are thinking simply with their eyes. We, the audience, know EXACTLY what they are thinking - or at least are given the opportunity to make up our own mind. We also know a fraction of a second before she says "Go, now" that she will say it. It's a great moment which made me gasp. Up till this moment in the film, I feel that Ang Lee has given us one big tease. Is she, isn't she? Is he is't he?? And so on...
'Lust, Caution' is, rather obviously, a take on Hitchcock's 'Notorious' (something Lee has gone on to say as much in interviews). But anyone coming to this film expecting a romantic thriller, will be sorely disappointed.
The heroine of 'Lust, Caution' is most assuredly on her own here. There is no Cary Grant to save her from the villain (or herself) - Ang Lee fondly reminds us of this with a glimpsed poster for 'Suspicion' and also when our heroine sees 'Penny Serenade' at the cinema, we have Grant bearing down. It's a touching moment and also a subtle reminder that this tale will probably not have a happy ending! I imagine a clip from 'Notorious' would have been a bit too obvious but in another scene we do see her crying over Ingrid Bergman in 'Intermezzo' (Grant's co-star in Notorious and the original spy/whore).
But anyone who knows 'Notorious' will know the differences - not just in plot but in pacing and narrative. 'Lust, Caution' is as much an espionage thriller as Brokeback Mountain is a Western.
Characterisation is poles apart also. In 'Notorious', Ingrid Bergman's Alicia is a drunk and treated as a tramp (Personally I'd like to think she was just a hedonist who liked a good time or two - which to the more prudish and judgmental among us equals a tramp anyway). Cary Grant comes along and persuades her to become a spy, to seduce the Nazi, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) in to bed so they can find out what he and his fellow Nazis are up to in Rio. Of course, Alicia is initially reluctant for many reasons. But Dev knows she's been round the block a few times - she knows the difference between work and play, and she goes along with the plan very much with her eyes wide open. And essentially what follows is a love story pretending to be a spy thriller - at the heart of 'Notorious' is a story of redemption through love. The spy element is the 'mcguffin'.
But it is still a thriller.
'Lust, Caution' on the other hand, with its deliberately slow pacing and intense eroticism, is something else entirely. One thing it is not, is a thriller. At least not in its conventional sense.
Although the 'heroine' of 'Lust, Caution' is not a virgin when she meets Mr Lee, she is very much an innocent. The clumsy, and tragically comic, fumbling 'sex lessons' she endures with one of her fellow resistance troupe is certainly NO real learning experience for life or for what she has to do. Unlike Alicia, she is an innocent to men and sexuality - she wouldn't find it so easy to distinguish between 'work and play'. Like Alicia she is 'Mata Hari' - she "makes love for the papers". A spy. Unlike Alicia, she is practically a child. But she is also an actress.
So what are we seeing? A actress giving a convincing performance for fear of risking her life? A naive innocent? A love story?
Here, we are not given the luxury of knowing what she is really thinking. That's were the tension comes from. That's its genius.
I don't think we ever truly know what the heroine is actually feeling - is she acting, is she falling in love with Mr Yee? Or is it maybe a mixture of both? Possibly. Over the course of a little under three hours I don't think we ever truly know. In the same way, we know practically nothing about Mr Yee - his actions, what he is feeling. We only know what is TOLD us, what is spoken about by the troupe of resistance fighters, what they believe - that he is a collaborator and torturer.
But we NEVER see it! (Only once, I think, does Mr Yee talk about it). Is this dishonest of the makers of Lust, Caution? Or do we really NEED to see it?
Maybe it's not important. After all, Wong Chia Chi never sees it so why should we? This is her tale.
The first real clues to Mr Yee's true nature become blisteringly apparent in the first time they have 'sex' - a scene of such brutal ferocity that it gave me a knot in my stomach - he beats her with his belt and rapes her. For the audience, it's very easy to see the corrupting monster he is from this scene. Maybe this is how he has treated his (female) captives? It's not hard to imagine. But for the naive innocent Wong Chia Chi, I think it's entirely possible to imagine her seeing this brutal act as making love - how would she know any different? She's no Mata Hari or Alicia Huberman. She doesn't know men.
I don't know. Even after a second viewing, I'm still undecided if I really like Lust Caution. I certainly find it hard to engage with the main characters.
Ultimately, the ambiguity of the heroine's motivations and the inscrutable characterisation of Mr Yee, not only alienates much of the audience but also leaves the film open to accusations of immorality - is this really a love story? And if so, do we empathise with a woman who is very likely in love with a monster? I'm inclined to hope not!
Wong Chia Chi is an actress but, even more than that, an innocent. I would say that, by the end of the story, she has become a little infatuated with (inscrutable) Mr Yee and her naivete means she makes a terrible decision that proves to be everyone's downfall. Whether he is in love with her is an irrelevance almost. It's too late.
If she - or we, the audience for that matter - were shown Mr Yee's crimes, this would be a very different story. Motivations would be black and white. Whether this would have made it a better film or easier to understand is a moot point. I do feel though, it would have been an easier film to forget.