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Lust, Caution, Ang Lee (2007)

In Japanese-occupied China, a group of idealistic Chinese students plot the assassination of a high-level Chinese collaborator. The strategy is to have one of their number–the beautiful one, naturally–seduce him. Fairly predictably, she falls in love with him, as in Verhoeven’s Black Book. Somewhat less predictably, and unlike Black Book, the evil target does not turn out to have a heart of gold. He really is a bastard, but she loves him anyway, or is at least captivated by him, because he’s a really, really intense guy who makes lighting a cigarette look like ballet one second, and the next is detailing the torture methods he uses at the office, and ripping off the young student’s dress to rape her.

Lee wants us, I think, to get some kind of message along the lines of, “animal desire is more powerful than human reason” or “the personal trumps the political,” or something like that. But there’s so much that discomfits me here. It’s not that I object to the proposition that evil can be seductive. That’s clear. But the representation of evil as seductive feels wrong. In real life, we might pity a victim who falls in love with her victimizer, but we certainly wouldn’t celebrate the situation as a triumph of the human spirit, unless we were feeling pretty damned kinky. In the movie, though, we are encouraged, it seems, to root for the couple’s l’amour fou.

The fact that the movie is set in China redoubles my anxiety. So many received notions are on display here. China: inscrutable, devious, idealistic, enslaved to tradition, bottomlessly cruel. The tones are so familiar they barely register. And visually, too, so many overly familiar tropes; why is it that so many of the Chinese movies I see promoted in the States are set in the feudal past or the atmospheric early twentieth century? Imagine if the only American movies you ever saw were westerns or gangster pictures. Don’t they make any comedies over there? Why aren’t we seeing them?

Sumptuous looking movie, a few intriguing ideas for the boudoir, but I can’t get past the gratuitous melodrama and the “ancient Chinese secret” atmosphere.

“Sentimentality, notoriously, is entirely compatible with a taste for brutality and worse.” — Susan Sontag, “Regarding the Pain of Others”

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