Ang Lee's Lust, Caution got a lot of negative reviews in the US. I was shocked. I always thought Lee, of all people, could convey the nuances of Chinese culture to a Western audience.
I admit I love this movie, as I do all his work, except The Hulk. And I'm not implying you have to give it the thumbs-up because it won the Golden Lion. However, after reading dozens of reviews from mainstream media in North America, I have a strong feeling that most critics failed to understand the movie - not only the subtleties, but even some of the plot. Of course, the two are often interconnected.
Rex Reed of The New York Observer called Mrs Yee "silly" because he assumed she is oblivious to her husband's trysts with other women. This couldn't be further from the truth. From how she reacts to her husband's emotional breakdown in the last scene, it is obvious she is in the know. There are Chinese wives who feign ignorance of their husbands' affairs, and this is probably something an American film critic cannot grasp. Shouldn't she be throwing a tantrum? They might ask.
Rex continues: "Neither of the two stars look like they're having much fun." I wonder what movie he was watching. Of course they were not having fun. This is not a romantic comedy. The lady is scheming to kill him, and he is figuring out whether she is another beautiful assassin sent his way. They are both walking on razor's edge, which is not a fun activity.
Most critics call the movie a spy thriller without realizing the multiple layers of the story. It is mostly psychological, with the two leads constantly testing each other and using a language rich in undertones. Almost every line has so much texture it could take a few more lines to decipher.
Many see a resemblance with films of similar plots, such as Paul Verhoeven's Black Book and Hitchcock's Notorious. But they fail to see the link to previous Lee masterpieces such as Sense and Sensibility and Brokeback Mountain. Think of it. "Lust" is "sensibility" while "caution" is "sense". Both leads - and even some of the supporting characters - have to maintain a life of caution for self-survival. When they succumb to lust or passion, they pay the ultimate price.
The three sex scenes received such widespread misinterpretation that trimming them might not be the terrible idea it should be. People got so carried away with the S&M and acrobatic couplings that they forgot to detect the symbolic meanings. The scenes epitomize their relationship, from domination, to distortion, to harmony. That's something a simple head shot could not convey. And it does not necessarily imply the lady loves to be tortured. That would be the same as saying she is a gold-digger who falls for a precious diamond.
The definite moment when she falls for him is at the Japanese club when he reveals his weakness. (He has a hunch his future as a collaborator is doomed.) She has a soft spot not for his power and money, but for the latent humanity he finally lays bare. The big stone just confirms his feelings for her, in her mind.
American critics are quick to pick up the clues of Hollywood movies that appear in the meticulously portrayed old Shanghai and have found an allusion to Hitchcock's Notorious, but nobody seems to have noticed that Mr Yee's every move is watched by his secretary, who knows his lover's secret identity and will probably bring about his downfall.
Human emotions writ large can transcend boundaries. It is the niceties that cause cultural misunderstandings.
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