Lust, Caution is a polarizing film. I suspect some will see this and love it for the setting, intrigue, costumes, and subtle characterizations. Others will find it plodding, opaque, and full of unsympathetic characters. While I realize most drama deals with topics that are unsettling, Lust, Caution brought it to a new level for me: I was so uncomfortable I very nearly left.
Lust, Caution is a tale about a group of Shanghai college students turned assassin during WWII and the Japanese occupation of China. They plan on murdering Mr. Yee, a government official with ties to the Japanese presence. It's a classic Mata Hari-type tale with a new circumstance and a fresh setting. Wang Jiazhi is a young actress with manipulation and deceit skills that border on the supernatural. Despite the ineptitude of her classmates, she easily takes on an alias, infiltrates Mr. Yee's social circle, seduces him, and falls in love.
We can read Wang Jiazhi's character a few different ways. She can be a naive woman caught up in something much larger than herself, and highly sympathetic. While this isn't precisely wrong, I saw something more: Wang Jiazhi is an extremely twisted character; a devil in a blue dress, and a true femme fatale. She agrees to become a spy not just for acceptance among her peers, but to prove to herself and everyone that she can be a starlet. She's obsessed with movies, and learns to cry on cue. She takes on a life of lies as if it were her own, without hesitation, with seemingly little promise of reward or personal benefit, beyond being able to hobnob with the wealthy and dangerous. When Mr. Lee has sex with her for the first time, he's horribly violent, and she seems to enjoy every minute of it, smirking to herself once Mr. Lee's left her. She does protest to her friends, but I can't tell if she harbors a genuine hatred for her job, or is simply waffling. Eventually, Wang Jiazhi lets her selfish and materialistic ambitions completely overshadow her original goal, and endangers all her friends. Reprehensible.
Beyond having a heroine I hate, Lust, Caution has a paper-thin premise. None of the 6 students involved in the espionage seem to have any strong motivations, with the exception of Kuang Yu Min, whose family was killed by Mr. Yee. None of the supporting characters get much screen time, and their portrayals are callously one-dimensional and forgettable. The assassination group is woefully unequipped to deal with assassinating Mr. Yee, and they owe their success completely to the talents of Wong Jiazhi. Before she seduces Mr. Yee, the students convince Wong Jiazhi to do something unthinkable, which seems to have very little practical value in reality or in the story, except to introduce shock value into the movie - about an hour in, and it gets better (worse?) from there.
The sex in this movie is so explicit it's pornographic. Except instead of being turned on (because I do enjoy porn), I found myself burying my head into my husband's arm, which is a position I usually only reserve for horror scenes. These scenes are important, as they're some of the only scenes that establish the dynamics of the relationship between Mr. Yee and Wang Jiazhi. However, these graphic scenes are so frequent and so long, they're simply gratuitous. We're voyeurs looking in on an extremely unhealthy relationship - the sex appeal is gone and replaced with the grit of realism.
Some of the editing made the film hard to follow, particularly at the beginning, when events are explored non-chronologically, without any exposition. Through all the movie, there's an importance on significant glances, and if you're not clued into them, you might miss some of the story. The film achieves some success at noir, and I found the cultural portrayals to be interesting and accurate (from what I know).
Lust, Caution aims for high cinema and loses credibility in the loose story, shallow secondary characters, and shocking sex scenes. What could have been a coy romance is stripped of its charm when the covers come off and we realize how emotionally immature our heroine is. See this film if the concept captivates you. Anything less may leave you bored, confused, or nettled.
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