Espionage and mah-jongg create friction

Ang Lee dazzles viewers with more than diamonds and no cowboys.

Becky Lang

.”Here we are with painted faces, listening to their off-tune song,” sighs Mr. Yee, the assassin’s target and moon-eyed, belt-wielding sexual playmate of Wang Chia Chi, the woman who has just asked him if he is trying to make her his whore. They are in a paper-walled teahouse, trying to avoid the spies who trace their paths as carefully as astronomers’ plot constellations.

“Lust, Caution”

Directed by: Ang Lee
Starring: Tony Leung, Tang Wei, Joan Chen, Lee-Hom Wang
Rated: NC-17
Showing at: Uptown Theater, 2906 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis

It could be that director Ang Lee gains more power with each film. Breaking his artistic credibility to the mainstream with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” he established his ability to successfully surpass barriers of social squeamishness by depicting homosexual affairs in “Brokeback Mountain.” In “Lust, Caution,” he uses his hard-earned artistic license to depict the psychological intensity of their affair with meandering, sometimes sadistic sex scenes graphic enough to earn the movie an NC-17 rating.

The film’s scope outreaches the gossip-worthy center by exploring pre-WWII China. The era is portrayed as a disparate social climate, where trivial luxuries of the bourgeoisie settle like a lazy gloss over the streets filled with people desperate for rice rations. By focusing on an elite social circle, the plot is more interested in exposing corruption than mass suffering.

At the center are the “Tai Tais” – the Chinese word for wife, which means “too much, too much,” – who are well-to-do wives of government officials. Seemingly free from obligations, they spend days playing mah-jongg and eyeing one another’s exotic diamonds. When contrasted with the shots of thin men passed out on old sacks, being poked to determine if they are dead, they become all too easy to mock.

The movie begins with a tersely arranged meeting between Mak Tai Tai, a particularly poor player in the mah-jongg circle, and Mr. Yee, the host’s husband and ladder-climbing politician. She awaits him at a cafe, nervously drinking coffee and dabbing perfume on her wrists.

The movie then flashes back four years, completely turning inside out the nuances of the initial frivolity. Before becoming the pearlescent beauty that is Mak Tai Tai, Wang Chia Chi is back at the university, naïve and plain. Eager to get involved, she is cast as the star in a resistance-themed play. From there, she is initiated into a tight circle of jovial idealists, who spout rebellious slogans over bottles of liquor. Angry at family deaths due to the puppet government, they scheme a plot to use their star to seduce Mr. Yee into their apartment, where they will be waiting with guns pointed.

The plot is derived from a short story written by Eileen Chang in 1950. Criticized for focusing on romantic exploits of higher-class citizens, Chang’s book skirts around mentioning the sex and violence taking place in her novel. What makes the cinematic release so powerful is that it spares nothing, making Ang Lee’s unapologetic grit an example of art’s increasing willingness to thoroughly analyze controversial situations.

By barreling into these left-out chapters with a voyeuristic eye, Lee proves that “Lust, Caution” is not a shallow tale of women who’d rather talk about spicy cuisine than war, but a statement that their powdered faces cover a history of secrets and sacrifices.