Ang Lee seems to have a thing for making movies out of short stories. If Brokeback Mountain successfully exorcised the ghosts of that execrable piece of JUNK, “The Hulk”, his latest endeavor “Se,Jie”(Lust, Caution) cements his status as a gifted auteur . Naturally, I was keen to review the source material, Eileen Chang’s short story of the same name.
The old chestnut that the book is always better than the movie is not true of “Lust,Caution”. They are both powerful oeuvres in their own right and comparison would be unfair to both. While Lee’s film was a well fleshed out look at the sinister machinations of spies and the complex intricacies of conflicting loyalties and emotions, the short story is less overt, dealing in subtleties and nuances. The plot revolves around a young woman who finds herself rather confused about her feelings for her mark, a high placed enemy official who she is to seduce and lead into a death trap. Morality hardly enters the equation in this dilemma, the choice being between desire and loyalty to her fellow firebrands. It is no easy choice. Either her lover dies, or she tells him of her perfidy and subterfuge and saves him from death, thus losing him forever. Think of it as a Chinese take on “The Lady and the Tiger” set in the decadent Shanghai of the 1940’s. Only this time, we discover which of the two impossible decisions our heroine makes.
The novella itself was a sweet little gem that ended too quickly, but was all the more powerful for its brevity. The rest of this anthology of stories is hit or miss, love being the predominant theme explored. Eileen Chang’s characterizations are deeply thought-out and deserve much kudos. She is a student of human character and the personages that populate her world are excellent portrayals of the human race in all its complexity, passion and flawed beauty. Her eloquent depictions of the mystic East are powerful and sensuous, evoking nostalgia for places and ways of life long gone.
Keeping in mind the theme of the month,( the entire board of editors has become a bunch of smut peddlers), I would be remiss if I did not mention the steamy scenes of carnal congress in the movie version. The performance is so realistic, leaving critics wondering if the sex is simulated at all. Just in case you’re wondering, they have done it for real on the silver screen. It’s been done (forgive the pun) in” Wild Orchid” and Martin Scorcese’s debut crime opus “Boxcar Berthie”. Quizzed on the possible authenticity of the coupling, Ang Lee quipped, “Have you seen the film?” Those who have will agree that the sex, while elaborate, explicit (and exquisite) is hardly gratuitous, contributing an essential facet to the way we perceive the tumultuous relationship of the central characters. Seldom has one film so satisfied both the voyeur and the philosophical analyst of the human condition. Top marks on both movie and text versions.