Who tells their child stories of how, after a World War II Japanese bombing raid of Chinese civilians hidden in caves or bomb shelters, you would see bits of arms or legs or other body parts strung up on telephone wires the next day as a result of the bombing? Or that in the streets, Japanese soldiers would spear Chinese babies on their bayonets, and laugh?
A haunted person—my mother—that’s who.
My mother told me those awful ghost stories and more, worse because of their inescapable truth, and I was all of 8, or 10, or 13 when I heard them. She was born 5 years after the Japanese imperial army occupied Manchuria, and her entire childhood was colored not only by the death of her father but by the Sino-Japanese war.
I did what children growing up in the reflected cathode-ray glow of American tv would do: I buried those stories deep underground like the people hidden in caves, trying to shelter my heart and my imagination from unspeakable, unimaginable things. But like those poor bombing victims, stray limbs would appear in the unlikeliest of places. Like my mother’s conversation.
One stray limb, or rather, an entire corpse, that refused to disappear was Iris Chang’s book, The Rape of Nanking. Memories like my mother’s, spread out across an entire generation of Chinese and further flung into the outer reaches of the diaspora, have haunted millions of Chinese whose cultural instincts are to stuff and swallow. There is only so much you can pretend to forget before it comes clawing up into your dreams and spilling out into conversation.
Thus it was a privilege to see Ang Lee’s latest film at a Los Angeles screening in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences theatre Wednesday night. We are dying, I think, for something to help us articulate all this inchoate rage, and stifled despair, and to help us piece together dismembered histories. I think it may be the best film Ang Lee’s ever done. (I say that not having seen BROKEBACK for lack of opportunity, not lack of desire.)
Tang Wei as Wong Chia Chi in LUST, CAUTION
Briefly, LUST, CAUTION is about Wong Chia Chi, a young college student who, swept up in the desperately naive revolutionary fervor of the faction-ridden republican era, gets conscripted by her eager college classmates into joining a revolutionary student theatre group. They first present liberationist-themed dramas imagining a united China, then engage in more dangerous role-playing when they try to assassinate a collaborator with the Japanese, Mr. Yee. Wong Chia Chi must seduce Mr. Yee under the guise of a beguiling new identity in order to allow the resistance fighters to strike, and avoid being caught in any of the increasingly elaborate lies she concocts to lend credibility to her bored housewife persona, “Mrs. Mak.”
It is by far the most chinese film ang lee has ever done. By that I mean it’s virtually illegible for a large part of the non-Chinese, American viewing audience*–America, so fond of its little protege Chiang kai-shek and deeply emotionally invested in anti-communist rhetoric and any tin-pot dictator willing to espouse such. (Not that i’m calling Chiang kai-shek a tin pot dictator, I don’t mean to. But I’m leaving open the contradictory possibility of his thuggishness and great ability as a general.) In Lee’s WWII China, the weariness and dread arising from Japanese occupation since 1931 shroud the film and are the foremost emotions, and he tells the heretofore untold story of the Pacific War from the perspective of the Chinese for the first time ever in a major mainstream Hollywood film. So much for america’s fondness for Chiang kai-shek or a vision of our(?)selves as tow-headed savior G.I.s handing out gum and chocolates from a tank. Those self-soothing national fantasies are stripped from us almost as efficiently and violently as Mr. Yee shreds the clothes from Wong Chia Chi/Mrs. Mak, his mistress, at their first assignation. For their first encounter is no more about seduction than it is about possession.
Even Germany is pushed to the periphery, acknowledged briefly with the opening image of a well-fed German shepherd signifying the menace, the paranoid surveillance of racial and ideological purity and bloody carnivorousness that was Hitler’s “final solution.” As well it must: this movie is about the Pacific War.
And finally, the sex. I have my qualms about it, as it was perfectly legible to me—yet we all know that there are layers of Orientalist fantasy that become impossible to puncture any time a naked Asian female is seen onscreen. I’ll address each in turn.
Read Me: A Letter to the Chinese Diaspora
There isn’t a note of pandering in this brilliant, stunningly acted, slow-burn story of deception and betrayal. And most of all, in this age of pervasive pornography and facile violence, Lee’s movie is that surprising thing: it’s shocking. Its nudity and violence are truly shocking.
That said, I wonder how many non-Chinese will get the thousand nuances woven into the film, of which I myself only caught maybe 45%? Such as, the fact that Mr. Yee shows his attraction to “Mrs. Mak” (Wong Chia Chi‘s undercover persona) by feeding her the tiles she needs to win in mah jong? That the fluent Shanghainese spoken by Mrs. Mak (“my mother was from Shanghai”) is telling, maybe even her undoing?
I’ve always wondered about lee’s claimed “Taiwanese” identity. I won’t pretend to be able to explain the maze-like relationship those born in China who then moved to Taiwan after 1949 have to the word “Chinese”, and those who claim Taiwanese Nationalist identity, which I suppose pre-dates the post-1949ers by several generations. And I have even more questions seeing Lee so closely bind Chiang kai-shek, who’s on the NT$100 Taiwan yuan bill, with the film’s chinese collaborationist villain, Mr. Yee. That character gives another character a key in an envelope with a small Chiang kai-shek imprinted on the corner (official stationery, one guesses), and in a later scene, in Mr. Yee‘s forbidden office, we see pictures of him on the wall next to official portraits of Chiang kai-shek again. It’s astonishing to see this inference, and it so throroughly goes against a certain hagiographic view of “Generalissimo” Chiang kai-shek that cold war america embraced, but had much more complicated resonances elsewhere in the Chinese diaspora.
Frankly, it’s a relief, as all throughout my childhood, at least, I was taught that Chiang kai-shek did some heroic things for–and many craven things to–China. Our household was agnostic: we were wary of Mao, held a quiet, compensatory dismissiveness of Chiang kai-shek to counter his overblown (in our Chinese American eyes) cold war reputation, and felt that communism had a tragic aura of failed possibility, having once ignited a revolutionary spark in the 1920s and 1930s, but then turned rancid and self-annihilating in the post-WWII era.
The republican period, 1911-1931, muddled and interlaced with competing allegiances and intrigues and the goddamned inability of any Chinese person to cast differences aside and work with another Chinese person, nevertheless gave rise to one clear defining ethos: to collaborate with the Japanese was to be the ultimate sell-out. During those years, the Japanese, via Emperor Hirohito, were selling a brand of superiority complex parallel to Nazism,* as shown in LUST, CAUTION by a snippet of newsreel footage of Hirohito urging his fellow Asians to believe that whites would no longer be colonizers, that instead, “Asia would be for Asia.” Actually, what Hirohito meant was that Asia would now be Japan’s to plunder.
How much of contemporary Chinese-ness is founded upon anti-Japaneseness? More than I am comfortable with. But it is also undeniably—justifiably—rooted in true suffering. Put it this way, my mother and father were unable to bring themselves to buy a Japanese car until 1992. That’s over forty-five years of antipathy. Compared to others who experienced Japanese occupation directly, i.e., those elderly still living in China, my parents escaped relatively unscathed. But their form of survivor’s guilt has been to remember, to enact their own version of “never forget.”
Now if the Japanese people had ever undergone a cathartic re-examination of themselves in the post-WWII period as Germany did, if Japanese schoolbooks were ever altered to reflect even some allowance that Japan was anything but victimized by the west, if today Japanese intellectuals publicly and strenuously shot down right-wingers who claimed, in true Holocaust denier-style, that the Nanjing Massacre never happened, that Japan had never performed biological warfare experiments in Manchuria on Chinese civilians…if ANY of this had ever happened, then perhaps some of the anti-Japaneseness at the core of so much Chinese contemporary identity would be lessened among Chinese.
But perhaps it’s too much to insist on another’s moral reckoning. I’m sure many Americans and probably 99% of the world believe that America has a great deal to reckon for, and have we been capable of it?
What the Chinese can do, and should do, and must do before all memories are lost, is have their own reckoning. LUST, CAUTION is our window into that.
Sex as Both Truth & Betrayal
Wong Chia Chi’s assignment is to seduce a Chinese man who collaborates with the Japanese. Yet the sex scenes, while graphic, intense, and inclusive of full frontal nudity of both partners, are some of the least titillating, unarousing screen sex scenes I’ve ever seen. And I say that proudly, as someone nervous about how the sight of an unabashedly sexual Asian woman onscreen usually triggers all kinds of lurid fantasies in the HotAsianGirls pornosphere. Because I was so engrossed in the story and the characters, each instance of intercourse we saw was an opportunity to glean something new about the characters, things they could hardly reveal to one another or even to the audience in any other way. I saw this film with HB, and we were remarking that the sex scenes had the same story function as the action set pieces in GLADIATOR: each encounter with what’s often called “the little death” moved the story and characters forward. It was an occasion to wonder, What parts of their souls were dying with each fuck? What submerged parts of self were seizing inadmissible pleasure no matter the context or the consequences, when the next bombing raid or slip of the tongue might result in death?
Tang Wei (Wong Chia Chi/Mrs. Mak) is astonishing. She flickers between schoolgirl longing (for family, father, a lover) and the much worldlier bourgeois housewife of her creation. It could be said that her entire character arc lies between two letters: one sent (by her father), one unsent (to her father).
One of the hardest stories to act is a story about acting; yet Tang Wei never seems self-conscious and if anything, the forthright emotional courage her character conveys is a relief to all the obliquity the rest of the film demands. Hers is a complex, layered role, and we constantly see her in illusion netting, burned-out silk velvet, or bundled into layers of clothes that she unpeels. She embodies our viewpoint character, and when a particular scene is called back at film’s end, we’re reminded of Wong Chia Chi‘s vulnerability and perhaps how disingenuously she came to be chosen for her role.
Tony Leung Chiu Wai
And here I have to sing Tony Leung’s praises. How a human being can radiate so much screen presence, can blaze forth so much paradox—coldness with vulnerability, cruelty with longing—with two mournful eyes in a slightly lined face…well, it’s inhuman, his talent. Just unearthly. I think he may be one of the world’s greatest actors today. Leung’s Mr. Yee is severe, self-contained to a frightening degree. Which makes his softening toward his mistress even more unnerving. If he’s undertaken the loathsome, de-humanizing work of torturing fellow Chinese on behalf of Japanese occupiers, his one area of release is the furtive, almost animal connection he shares with Wong Chia Chi/Mrs. Mak.
Together, they do the unthinkable: the sex scenes have undeniable carnal power, but they’re most provocative in prodding you to wonder, What would it be like to fuck Death, to feel compelled by patriotism or love of one’s country to skirmish with the Grim Reaper? Because surely for Mrs. Mak/Wong Chia Chi, the blood-spattered shoes of his torture victims lie just as much under the bed as Mr. Yee’s shoes do. And this is maybe what is so shocking about the sex scenes: not their roughness, which in one instance is disturbingly close to rape, but the fact that the bed’s crowded with nation and revolution. Their intercourse is anything but privatized, and when we watch it, we’re not allowed to segue into our own fantasies but slapped, pushed, scratched, and maneuvered out of that realm and back into the world of the film. Conventional Hollywood narrative would’ve descended into softcore, would’ve focused on the ripe breast or the clichéd hand clutching the sheet or even MORE clichéd, the pleasure-miming moans of the woman.
Tang Wei and Tony Leung Chiu Wai
But what Ang Lee has done is frame the sex scenes largely in master shots, with whole bodies shown, and where one might expect to see close-ups of the actress/the character simulating her pleasure (following the conventions of porn), instead the close-ups and reaction shots are mostly of Mr. Yee. This is what’s so shocking: sex tells us as near as we can fathom what Mr. Yee’s inner state is, what humanity he’s capable of after a grim day at the office literally dismembering his fellow Chinese. For if we wonder what it must be like for Wong Chia Chi to be given the mission of fucking Death, as the sex scenes transpire, and we’re given more of Mr. Yee’s responses, we have to shift to wondering what it must be like to embody Death itself, or its nearest human equivalent, Mr. Yee.
And I can’t emphasize enough that I think it’s deliberate the filmmaker has turned inside out the cinematic conventions of porn (which we see, prettified, in conventional Hollywood sex scenes); where pornography isolates the (woman’s) breast, the mouth, the face, Ang Lee has chosen to show the entire body, the entire bodies of both participants—to re-member the chopped up parts. With LUST, CAUTION, Lee insists that the person most revealed, most naked in the sexual act is the man. That is unorthodox and downright revelatory. And yes, even shocking.
Moreover, I think Tony Leung’s craft as an actor is no more evident than in his close-ups. If Wong Chia Chi’s longings for family, father, and lover are thwarted or outright betrayed for most of the film elsewhere, and teased in the couple’s consummations, we begin to grasp how sex speaks in several registers, how it can keep despair at bay even as it remains an expression of power. But it’s with Mr. Yee’s anguished and lonely orgasms that we see how even a monster can feel despair, how even a man capable of monstrous things can be brought to tears in the middle of occupied Shanghai’s Japanese quarter (no doubt Atrocity Planning and Execution Central circa 1938 to 1942), when he’s reminded by a Chinese folk song that he too is Chinese.
I’d love if Tang Wei and Tony Leung won best actress and actor awards, respectively. But I really doubt Hollywood’s ability to “get” the film. (People at the studios cast THE LAST SAMURAI with Chinese actors and then wondered why the film bombed in Asia. Duh.)
More importantly, will the film spark some sort of society-wide reckoning among Chinese in the diaspora as I diagnosed the need for earlier? Can it exorcise decades of loathing (of the Japanese) and self-loathing (for not having provided a more unified and effective resistance)? If LUST, CAUTION were to win multiple awards, would it take affirmation by the west for Chinese people to possess their past? And what would it take for Japan to enter into this dialogue?
*p.s.: Manohla Dargis: you, madame, are a dipshit and I can’t believe they pay you to write that obtuse crap for the NYT. But then again, it’s so textbook NEW YAWK I DON’T GET ANYTHING ASIAN PACIFIC BECAUSE MY HEAD IS TOO FAR UP MY EAST COAST ASS you can just go fuck yourselves all over again, NY Times. You STILL haven’t shown any progress after your screw-ups on Wen Ho Lee, so why would you “get” this film?