Lust, Caution: Losing the Self

(NSFW content) 

In 2007, the Mill Valley Film Festival asked director Ang Lee what specific elements of Eileen Chang’s original short story he wanted to amplify through the film. Ang Lee answered, “Performance. Things about acting. Performance not only in a stage play and her parts but in general. A big part of life is about performance. Think about sex, how it’s about performance” Each sex scene in Lust, Caution enacts as a theatrical performance that subsumes Wong Chia Chi into her role as Mrs. Mak. The surrendering of her body to Mr. Yee results in a collapse of the self. Lee chooses to stage this negotiation of performance within three highly sexual scenes, all of which “are at different levels and she has to withstand his scrutiny as an interrogator, without him learning the truth” (Abeel 1). The gradual intensification these erotic scenes continually subjugates Wong Chia Chi’s role over her true self.

Lee’s film is a departure from Chang’s short story, whose only overt reference to sexuality is, “In truth, every time she was with Yi she felt cleansed, as if by a scalding hot bath.” Lee’s visualization of Wong’s corporeal relationship with Yee instigates this purging sensation. The scenes were so intense that they left critics flummoxed as to whether the film should be categorized as an art or pornographic film. Censorship swiftly followed after release, for example the United States gave a rating of NC-17 (box office poison) while China and India eliminated all of the sexual scenes (China has no rating system, all films must be made for all audiences). Critics also argued whether or not the sex scenes were indispensable to the core meaning of the story. However, these scenes are integral and they bring clarity to the narrative and reveal the inner psychology of the lead characters.

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Mr. Yee and Wong Chia Chi’s first sexual encounter occurs shortly after she moves in, their first time alone together since their dinner three years ago. The scene begins with Mr. Yee in a chair looking at Mrs. Mak, who sits on the bedpost and returns his gaze, silently beckoning him over. He remains unmoved. Wong Chia Chi tries to initiate and control the situation, playing the part of a dominant and seductive mistress. She takes a cigarette out of his mouth to assert this dominance, but Mr. Yee stands and grabs her by the neck forcefully, the first sign of the surprising sadomasochistic elements that will imbue the encounter. Wong Chia Chi is taken aback; she did not expect for Mr. Yee to exert sadistic control. Mr. Yee’s sadism is drawn out of his lack of trust due to the harsh reality of his traitorous political identity as a Japanese collaborator.

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Mr. Yee uses this sexual violence to enact his role as interrogator. We learn later in the film that government agencies had already sent two other women to try and seduce him, but he discovered their true identity. Mr. Yee uses these sadomasochistic tactics to test Wong Chia Chi’s limits, to see if she will break and reveal that she is a conspirator.  He throws her roughly against the wall and rips off her undergarments, he uses his belt to strike her and tie up her arms. Mr. Yee physicalizes his suspicion by keeping her face away from him. When Wong Chia Chi turns her head to stare directly in his eyes he is unsettled and pushes her head back. The couple both leave the top half of their clothes on, another sign that Mr. Yee does not trust Mrs. Mak fully enough to expose his body.

The second sex scene is aggressive but passionate, their interrogation dynamics still at play. The encounter begins with them both in bed, naked and kissing passionately, their tongues trailing over each other’s bodies. Mr. Yee’s naked physical body is revealed, a symbol of his increasing vulnerability. The prolonged eye contact during their unique positioning signals Yee’s trust and their connection growing deeper. A medium close-up follows of their entangled body parts during penetration.

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Ang Lee’s “forceful construction” of illicit sex, such as the dizzying camera angles and use of Karma Sutra positions, images rarely seen in cinematic portrayals of lovemaking, amplifies the overwhelming consumption of Wang Chia Chi’s body. Lee’s dream-like construction demonstrates how she falls under the spell of her own performance as Mrs. Mak. This is not the kind of sex that one dissociates themselves from, it is the paragon of intense bodily communion. The loss of the self is inevitable when one;s body is put through those demands.

The third and final sex scene is crucial, they transcend their performances. The mise-en-scene uses dark lighting that fades in and out to black on each new shot, revealing the couple in a new sexual position. Lee also uses quick cuts in between different entwinements of their bodies. These shots create an otherworldly and a temporal displacement. Their intense physical acrobatics seem to be taking place in a never-ending void, as if their frenzied encounter has been going on infinitely. The couple also makes even more prolonged eye contact; both are completely immersed in this relationship. A marked difference from the previous sexual scenes is that Mr. Yee is no longer dominant, Wang Chia Chi is shown on top, a visual metaphor for her newfound control.  Although Wong Chia Chi has finally dominated Mr. Yee, her immersion results in losing control of herself.

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Wong Chia Chi’s role as agent, Mrs. Mak, and her self are interrogated in this scene. At one point during their love making, Wong Chia Chi sees his gun on a dresser, the opportunity to kill him and end her mission is wide open. She chooses not to, instead she covers Mr. Yee’s head with a pillow to both intensify his climax and hide her crying. The final shot Wong Chia Chi laying back on the pillow, exhausted and filled with tears. Wong Chia Chi surrenders and the binary between Mrs. Mak and Wong Chia Chi is shattered.Since Wong Chia Chi now cares for Mr. Yee as Mrs. Mak does, she fails her mission and betrays the resistance. This occurs in the final scene; she tells Mr. Yee to “run” just before he is about to be assassinated. In sparing Mr. Yee’s life, Wong Chia Chi sacrifices her own. Off-screen, Mr. Yee’s workers capture and kill Wong Chia Chi and her former classmates.

The final sequence of the film shows Mr. Yee sitting on Mrs. Mak’s bed, his wife wondering where their houseguest went. Mr. Yee tells his wife to go back downstairs and he eventually rises to follow her. The last shot shows the crumpled mattress and the imprint where Wong Chia Chi’s body once laid. The bed is signaled formally as the site of transcendence, the stage whereupon Wong Chia Chi offered her body for her performance. The final shot symbolizes the bed as the site where the characters lay stake to their negotiations of performance. They were each enacting roles- Mr. Yee as interrogator, Wong Chia Chi as doting mistress doubled spy. She was able to withstand his powers of interrogation, their sexual relationship evolving into enamored lovers. Both of their performances were broken. Mr. Yee ended up truly caring for Wong Chia Chi, symbolized by the ring he gives her at the end of the film. Wong Chia Chi fell for Mr. Yee as well.

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