Tuesday, January 27, 2009

174. Film Review #12: LEE: Se, jie (Lust, Caution) (2007)

A detailed analysis of the above film. SE, JIE (LUST, CAUTION)

***

Language: Mandarin
Anamorphic Widescreen 1:85:1
159 Minutes

***

Although I've been carefully studying (and enjoying) Asian films for more than ten years now, I still feel like a Chinese person who speaks no English, sitting down to watch Animal House and then attempting to write a detailed review -- not just for his local Chinese audience -- but for the whole world!

So, consider now that I never review any film that I've seen less than ten times. With foreign films, these repeated viewings allow me to stop focusing on the subtitles, and, having more or less memorized the dialogue, I am then free to watch the entire screen. Despite the language barrier, I usually feel pretty confident that I now have a strong grasp on the film and -- in this case -- how the great Ang Lee pulled it all off!

I have every film he's ever made (except Chosen, a six-minute film which is apparently not to be found for purchase {let me know if I am wrong about that, someone!})...

They're all terrific:

  1. Tui shou (Pushing Hands) (1992), a beautiful family drama with a grandpa who does Tai-Chi and a Jewish daughter-in-law who attempts to bridge the cultural gap;
  2. Xi yan (The Wedding Banquet) (1993), probably my favorite gay-themed film of all time;
  3. Yin shi nan nu (Eat Drink Man Woman) (1994), possibly the finest food movie of all time;
  4. Sense and Sensibility (1995), his first English-language film, and a beautifully realized literary treasure;
  5. The Ice Storm (1997), recently rereleased on the prestigious Criterion label;
  6. Ride with the Devil (1999), a greatly underappreciated Civil War mini-epic with a fine performance by Jewel;
  7. Wo hu cang long (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) (2000), which grandly kicked off a nice plethora of good Chinese-made martial arts films from China's other two great directors: Yimou Zhang, with Ying xiong (Hero) (2002); Shi mian mai fu (House of Flying Daggers) (2004); and Man cheng jin dai huang jin jia (Curse of the Golden Flower) (2006), and Kaige Chen, with Wu ji (The Promise) (2005); Ang followed that up with an attempt at a Hollywood success:
  8. Hulk (2003); and then a rather more successful attempt with:
  9. Brokeback Mountain (2005).Which brings us to
  10. Se, jie (Lust, Caution).
Lee has created a very complex film which neither shoehorns neatly into any particular filmic genre (it is certainly not a conventional thriller -- in the end, the good guy loses; the bad guy wins), nor does the film deliver its somewhat controversial media-spun splash of raw, primal sexuality with anything other than the complete honesty (and therefore, non-controversial -- and certainly non-gratuitous) that truthful filmmaking and storytelling demand, and of which Ang Lee would be incapable of producing otherwise.

It is certainly no fault of Ang Lee's that this film was more or less advertised as a "must-see" for the sex scenes alone -- when in fact, it is the riveting, bloody, violent scene which precedes the first sex scene that is the cornerstone of Se, jie. I cannot get that scene out of my mind!

Alexandre Desplat's score over the opening credits is a perfect mood-setter, vibraphones like tiny gongs -- and after the final credit (very short, just the production companies followed by the film title, beautifully haunting in deep jet black and red lines), we find Lee -- like Iñárritu in Babel, (and other filmmakers with varying degrees of success), beginning the film with an iconic image which will reoccur throughout this 159-minute epic -- and not necessarily in chronological order!

The languid, droopy face of a German Shepherd. We will meet this dog -- or his relatives -- throughout various sections of the film; but this exact particular image reoccurs at a later point.

The introduction is crisp and informative. The dog's handler looks around nervously. A soldier with a rifle paces an upper balcony, as the subtitle appears:

"JAPANESE OCCUPIED SHANGHAI, 1942"

Other soldiers are peering through binoculars; four Chinese men stand in a circle, smoking, subtitle:

"RESIDENTIAL COMPOUND OF THE CHINESE COLLABORATIONIST GOVERNMENT"

Cut to a servant carrying four bowls of soup on a tray, coming up the stairs, as we hear voices from a nearby room.

In a beautiful camera movement, as the girl nears the top of the staircase, the camera pushes in on the tray with the four bowls of soup. It stays close on the tray as the young girl passes it to an older female servant, who -- camera now behind this older woman -- prepares to put the tray down on a table next to four women playing mahjong.

Thus the scene is set. We listen to the wives of those brutal Chinese puppets, pattering on as they play with those beautiful, shiny tiles and Lee treats us to a carefully prepared mix of the clicking and clinking and shuffling going on ... of course, one of the woman -- "Mak Tai Tai" -- is really Wong Chia Chi (the gorgeous Wei Tang)...

Scene Two introduces us to Mr. Yee (the great Tony Leung Chiu Wai), as he walks up to a sinister black jail door with his underling, discussing a prisoner who is about to be handed over to the Japanese (Yee: "They didn't say dead or alive. Give him a quick one").

Are we supposed -- perhaps -- to feel a droplet of sympathy for this murderous collaborationist because he is nice enough to put a fellow Chinese "out of his mercy" before handing him over to the Japanese, who likely would have tortured him much more thoroughly?

In any case, Leung is fantastic. Even Manohla Dargis -- who didn't care for this film nearly as much as I do! -- admitted that Leung really knows how to use his eyes (sort of without really "using" them, you know?) to convey this kind of creepiness...

As Yee leaves the complex, we see a German Shepherd again. We follow Yee's car as it delivers him to his home -- which he enters quickly -- rock star-style -- after his bodyguard gives him the okay...

At this point, it becomes obvious that something is up between Mak Tai Tai and Mr. Yee, as he kibitzes the mahjong game ... she excuses herself abruptly (Mrs. Yee is annoyed) and is off somewhere, in a car provided by Mrs. Yee.

Lee -- with some stunning location work -- shows us 1942 Shanghai as it really must have been! Long lines for food and wide boulevards, nearly completely devoid of automobiles (gasoline was too expensive).

As Mak Tai Tai arrives and sends the car away, Lee treats us to our first moment of cinematic trickery designed to put us even deeper into this spy thriller mood -- a series of quick whip-pans, as Mak looks around for her accomplices. (Do we see any?)

She steps inside a fancy, Western restaurant/café. Is she meeting someone? She sits down, alone. Orders coffee. In English. Asks to use the phone. In English.

Dials phone. We hear it ringing.

She puts her hand on the buttons, disconnecting. A flash of a look from the waiter behind the bar!

"That's odd. Did I dial wrong?" (in Chinese). The waiter smiles. She smiles.

She re-dials, and begins a strange conversation, which sounds like spy code...

Only at the very end of the conversation do we meet the man on the other end -- Kuang Yu Min (Lee-Hom Wang). Kuang turns towards a group of six men and women and says, "It's now." All six prepare guns (one guy gets a knife)...

Back to Mak, sipping her coffee. Lee achieves great tension with shots like this close-up on the coffee cup, her red lipstick smeared across the rim of the cup, like a bloody warning. She puts on perfume.

A sudden, quite disconcerting, POV shift: The camera is now outside the café looking in at Mak, the pedestrians passing by reflected in the window...

A gorgeous fade-dissolve to a line of blue-uniformed soldiers, marching along with the Nationalist Chinese flag. Refugees trudge by in the opposite direction ... a few seconds pass before the subtitle appears:

"FOUR YEARS EARLIER"

(or 1938).

Amongst the throngs of the people we find Wong Chia Chi -- for "Mak Tai Tai" does not yet exist -- and we see that she has made friends with Lai Shu Jin (Chih-ying Chu). We learn some important details about Wong Chia Chi's life (her father is in England, with her brother, but was unable to send for her after war broke out and the mother died).

We are in Hong Kong. Wong and Lai are apparently in school together. Kuang Yu Min appears and recruits the two women for his theater company. Lai has done Ibsen, but Kuang has something more "revolutionary" in mind ...

After crying while watching the movie Intermezzo, the scene shifts abruptly to the performance of the play. The curtain opens and Wong Chia Chi is sitting at a table, knitting in silence.

Still silent, Lee allows the camera to pan over the audience in the theater and carefully puts in a few random coughs, as well as a beautiful little bit of flaring, with a wonderful little prism of color which spreads over part of the audience. Still not a word -- but wonderful work with both the sound design and the camera lighting ...

This is the "China Will Not Fall" section. Wong Chia Chi is a good little actress (this was Wei Tang's very first film, and high praise indeed for her understanding the meta- of scenes like this and capturing the flavor and subtleties of play-acting while play-acting! She is very very good!) and when she cries out "China Will Not Fall," the audience is deeply moved and stands and chants.

The troupe is overjoyed at their success, of course, and celebrate. Later, Kuang tells the rest of the troupe how he had just run into Tsao (Kar Lok Chin), an old friend of his brother's, who was now working for Yee. He convinces the rest of the troupe that it is only good and logical that they take the opportunity of trying to assassinate Yee -- much more effective resistance than mere theater, Kuang firmly suggests ...

All are in except Wong and it is worth noting the interplay between the quick cutting -- from Lai Shu Jin to Wong to Kuang, who grimly pronounces that he's "not forcing anyone to join."

Of course Wong is in, too. Perhaps she was the only one who truly realized how ridiculous the whole plot would turn out to be ...

In the next scene, Kuang and Liang Jun Sheng (Yue-Lin Ko) are wining and dining Tsao. Kuang asks him if he could help to get him a job with the collaborationists. Tsao says he will try.

Lee advances the plot. The six amateur resistance fighters move into a large dormitory-type residence and plan to have Wong Chia Chi and Auyang Ling Wen (Johnson Yuen) become the fictional Mak Tai Tai and her husband, the rich businessman, Mr. Mak ...

The "play" begins. The principals arrive at Yee's well-guarded home and Tsao and Mr. and Mrs. Yee exit the gate and greet their new "friends" -- the Maks and Mak's cousin from Tsao's old hometown, Kuang. Mrs. Yee -- Yee Tai Tai (Joan Chen) gets into the backseat of the car next to the Maks, and they go shopping.

(The next scene is a wonderful example of why Lee -- or, for that matter, any filmmaker who is somehow able to work outside of the Hollywood studio system -- is not going to fret about the running time of his film.)

The gang is analyzing their first contact with the enemy and discussing how to proceed. After Kuang notes that Yee Tai Tai has taken a liking to Wong, she excuses herself to go to bed ...

Lai Shu Jin comes to her room; the women smoke and make small talk. Nothing important is said -- but Lee lets his camera roam across the women's faces and both actresses give us plenty to chew on. For example, Wei Tang projects a perfect mixture of anxiety, detached coolness, a slight nervousness -- but yet, we get the feeling in this short, unspoken few seconds of cinema that Lai Shu Jin -- if no one else -- understands the horror of what is about to befall her dear friend, Wong ...

More mahj. Talk about unsettling events; a new government; a dinner party the next evening perhaps for the highest officials.

Yee Tai Tai wins by throwing down the "red tile." According to Wikipedia:

"The red tile ('中'榜, zhōngbǎng) means you pass the examination and thus will be appointed a government official."

Another post-mortem back at the dorm -- Lee spices up the plot development by moving the group to the beach, injecting a touch of humor:

Kuang and Auyang are shooting at bottles. The sound of ten gunfire shots. The tenth shot hits one of the bottles.

Auyang: "One bottle assassinated."

Several atmospheric scenes later (it is raining heavily), Yee joins three of the mahj ladies for a game where, among other things, he obtains Mak Tai Tai's phone number! Mak Tai Tai -- a predictably consistent loser at the game -- wins her only game of mahjong during the film when Mr. Yee is one of the four players.

A tense scene immediately follows as Auyang is dancing wildly with Lai Shu Jin (preparing for the possible need to dance as Mr. Mak [?]) when the telephone rings. As the group sits stunned, Huang Lei (Ying-hsien Kao) finally lifts the needle from the phonograph.

There are two important things to notice here:

  1. You can (barely) hear Wong's voice before the music stops; and
  2. The last cut of the scene is on Kuang. Note the clock above his head: 11:50 (presumably, P.M.) -- thus, we can put it all together: the group stunned at hearing the telephone ring at that hour and Yee's later questioning Wong about whether or not she was alone when he called (he obviously heard the music) ...
... which happens in the next scene as Yee and Wong share a cozy dinner together.

We get a glimpse of what a brilliant interrogator Yee must be: after some innocent chatter about mahjong, Yee fixes his black eyes on Wong, his voice even, steady -- never overmodulated -- and he says:

"I hope I didn't interrupt anything when I called today."

You can see Wong squirm for just an instant. Her lie is magnificent, however: she repeats a little tidbit that she had heard from one the wives at the mahjong table about her husband being away, and how his relatives were all "looking in" on her!

If Yee had desired to do so, I am sure he could have continued his questioning: "Why were your husband's relatives playing such loud dance music at midnight?" Wong finally ends her prevarication with a sexy come-on:

"Your call gave me the perfect excuse to leave." Yee inspects her coldly, carefully covering his mouth with his hand.

"Is that right?"

(It is at this very moment that I -- personally -- am convinced that Yee knows that Wong is not who she seems to be) ...

The conversation continues, seemingly so innocuous.

Yee: "You've been so kind to us. We know so few people here."
Wong: "Oh please. Such trivial things."
Yee: "But if you pay attention ..." (and here, Lee pushes in close) "... nothing is trivial."

A chill ripples down my spine.

Some wonderful ECU's here -- like the lipstick on the glass (jolting us backwards to the scene at the café where the lipstick is on the coffee cup).

Yee is so frightening here because he is subtly interrogating Wong with his eyes. She asks why the restaurant is so empty and he tells her it is because the food is so bad.

Lee keeps the camera on Wong as we watch her reaction -- such a crazy thing for the most powerful Chinese man in the city to say!

She plays her expression into one of embarrassment -- but is Yee too clever for her? Does he detect the falsity?

He shoots questions at her -- she parries -- he returns the serve ... she flings him a bold stroke as he questions her about Mr. Mak:

"If you're so interested in Little Mak, I'll bring him along next time!"

The dialogue here includes several lines which -- in my opinion -- are crucial towards approaching an understanding of the ending of the film:

A cut is emphasized by a distinct change in the piano music in the background. A candle is being lit by another.

Yee: "The people I deal with are high officials ..." (cut to Wong) " ... talking about important matters of state ... the destiny of our nation." (cut to Yee) " ... But no matter what words come out of their mouths ... I see only one thing in their eyes." (cut to Wong):

Wong: "What?"

Yee: "Fear. But you -- you seem different. You're not afraid, are you?"
Wong: "How about you?"
Yee: "You're smart. But not so smart at mahjong."
Wong: "You're right. I always lose. Except when I play with you."

Long silence, as Yee begins to light a cigarette. Wong seems to be eyeing the smoke longingly. At Yee's home, one of the wives had previously commented that Wong didn't smoke (although we haven't yet seen the scene which shows us this!), so Yee doesn't offer one to her here -- until this moment, as he sees that there is yet another "secret" he does not know about her! He gives her the cigarette and lights it. She exhales nervously ...

Lust. Caution.

The previous scene brings up the lust dynamic quite a bit -- but the dialogue about fear vividly shows us that this amateur assassin is anything but cautious! And he knows it!

The next shot is a stunning "bird's-eye" view of a car, barely visible by its headlights, snaking its way along a deserted road -- a full moon in the distance.

Inside the car, we find Yee, driving Wong home. At the dorm, the others go berserk as they see Yee's car pull up, quickly preparing themselves with guns and knives.

Lee really ratchets up the suspense in this scene, as Yee seems about to come inside with Wong.

But he does not. Wong needs a drink!

Another humorous moment -- Auyang asks whether Yee has "tried anything yet." Liang responds: "Mr. Mak is jealous!"

But it's deadly serious stuff, deep down, as we can infer from a sharp glance of Kuang's after this remark ...

Liang is the only man in the group with sexual experience, so he is chosen to "initiate" Wong, so that when the time comes, she will be able to "perform" with Yee ...

As they keep practicing -- she's on top now -- he remarks:

"I think you're getting the hang of it."
Wong: "Shut up."

Cut to: Wong is lying in bed; birds quietly chirping. Suddenly, she pulls back the covers (she is naked) and strides towards the window. She pulls back the curtains and we see a group of reddish flowers through the geometrically interesting window panes -- she is standing in such a way as to bring the entire composition into such an ethereal, angelic focus. We can barely see her face reflected in the window.

By the way, I guarantee that the previous 24 seconds of film would -- without any doubt -- be cut out of this film, had it been Hollywood-produced.

Cut to a shot of a mirror, reflecting Wong's image as she does her eyebrows. Kuang tells her that dinner is ready, but she is not hungry. Suddenly the phone rings. She rushes out to answer it. It is Yee Tai Tai! The Yee's are moving back to Shanghai immediately and Wong cannot even get Mrs. Yee to agree to a meal at the airport.

The violent scene which follows is perhaps one of the most gut-wrenching depictions of a brutal murder I have ever seen on screen. It is certainly unique -- I have never seen anything quite like it. It deserves a cut-by-cut description here, because this is where Lee is absolutely at his best. The horror is visceral and real (I dare you to say you didn't squirm, even a little!) and -- when all is said and done -- brings the entire film into the sharp focus; the first hour has been somewhat obscured by hazy scenes of bewilderment and uncertainty.

The group is packing (for Shanghai). Everyone is busy helping out, except for Wong who sits at the table. Finally, she decides to pitch in, by going out on the balcony for a smoke!

At this exact moment, the music comes to a stop. Kurosawa did this in 1948 with Yoidore tenshi (Drunken Angel) at a similar moment.

Through the windowpanes we can see Lai Shu Jin folding clothes behind her and -- look carefully! -- someone has entered through the open doorway, creeping in and looking around ...

Cut to a trunk packed with newspaper-wrapped kitchenware. The lid closes and Huang picks it up. He is in the foreground, with Kuang and Auyang in the background. We hear Tsao's voice:

"I hope I'm not disturbing anyone." Cut to Tsao. "Huang, I see you're a mover now, not a driver."

Cut to Lai Shu Jin, looking distraught, with Wong in the background on the balcony, still unaware of what's going on.

Two-shot: Kuang and Auyang.

Kuang: "Tsao, what are you doing here?" Switch POV to a three-shot -- camera now behind Kuang and Auyang with Tsao on the right. He holds his jacket in his left hand; his right hand is in his pocket. Huang still holds the chest he had lifted.

Tsao: "I thought I'd give my regards to Mr. and Mrs. Mak ... and all the cute little Mak children." Cut to Tsao in a frontal shot -- we see that Liang is standing just outside the doorway. Lee is giving us all the necessary filmic geometry here. Cut back to the original two-shot:

Kuang: "What do you want?"

Three-shot. Tsao starts to move forward as he speaks.

"I had my suspicions from the start ..." Here, Lee cuts back to Kuang and Auyang. Huang has joined them on the right, making it a three-shot, and is holding the chest. Tsao continues speaking:

" ... but I kept silent until I could see what your game was ..." Cut to close, upper-body shot of Tsao, as he points at Auyang:

" ... So Mr. Mak goes to Lingnan University?" (I suspect that that's what the Chinese characters on his t-shirt say!?) ... cut to previous three-shot:

Kuang: "Tsao -- don't do anything stupid!" Cut back to the three-shot of Tsao, Lai and Wong, who has now turned around and sees Tsao. He sees her and then turns his head back towards the camera. Reverse POV (through the windowpanes, from Wong's POV!) and we see he is now staring at Liang, still outside the doorway ...

Over Kuang's shoulder, Tsao, right hand still in his pocket, nervously moves his left hand while he speaks:

"Then how's this? Yee's going to Shanghai without me ... so it's time to join the good guys. I know a lot more than you do ..." POV change to Wong's: " ... Your superiors would find me quite valuable ..." Wong moves towards the window, her face reflected ...

Cut to three-shot of the guys.

Kuang: "How much do you want?"
Tsao: "For you, at least ten taels of gold ..." Cut to Wong, still outside: " ... and that's not counting Mak Tai Tai ..." (several quick cuts) "... Mr. Yee would pay a premium for her."

Cut to Kuang. We see his face swell up in anger. He bends down and grabs a knife and Lee cuts to a three-shot with Tsao barely in frame as Kuang screams:

"You're asking for it!" Very quick cuts to Tsao, who pulls out a gun, then POV of Wong through the windowpanes, her shocked face still reflected:

Tsao: "You're something else ..." Cut to Tsao, over Kuang's shoulder: " ... I had no idea you were a spy for the resistance. Why didn't you help me instead of using me?" Reverse angle cut, back to Tsao and reverse again, very quickly.

"After all, we're from the same town."

And thus, the conversation is over.

Hand-held takes over and the cuts come lightning-quick:

It is Huang who first reacts. He throws himself -- still holding the packed chest -- at Tsao, who pulls the trigger on the gun which has been deflected by Huang's move.

We are now in a wide shot which shows the gun being deflected and Wong on the balcony, just in the frame at left. Kuang in frame, then Tsao, all struggling wildly ... the camera pulls back ... then pushes back in ... pauses to capture Lai Shu Jin, crying ... the guys are all hitting out at Tsao and finally push him against the window, which breaks up all around Wong, as she reacts in horror. Kuang is trying to attack Tsao with a knife, but Tsao is successfully fighting him (and the others) off.

Cut to Lai -- she now has the gun and is pointing it at Tsao and advancing ... cut to Kuang, holding the knife ... the camera lingers on his expression of hatred ... Tsao looks at him in horror ... Kuang plunges the knife into his chest, but seems to hit a rib; the knife is deflected. Kuang now deliberately pushes the knife into Tsao's stomach. The cuts are fast and furious. Wong looks like she's going to throw up.

Everyone backs away as we are treated to the sight of the knife in the belly, blood trickling all around. (extremely realistic!) Cut to Tsao's face, unbelieving ...

Camera pulls back for a four-shot -- Kuang (standing), Huang (on the floor), Tsao (on the chair, his hand on the knife which sticks out of his stomach), and Liang (standing). Kuang screams at Tsao, pointing:

"You work for a traitor. You should know what's coming!" Cut to Lai, still holding the gun, her mouth wide open in disbelief.

In one swift motion, his lips trembling, Tsao leaps from the chair, pulls the knife out of his stomach and attacks Kuang, who fights him off.

Huang grabs the knife and stabs him at least three times in the chest. Auyung also gets a few thrusts of the knife in. Finally, Tsao collapses to the floor.

Throughout the above, the screams, moans and half-gurgles of terror from the group of six are absolutely terrifying -- done with a sharp realism that has to be experienced to be believed!

Breathing heavily, Tsao rises and heads for the doorway. Now it is Liang's turn (only the women never inflict a blow). He stabs him in the back a few times. Particularly poignant is the way Liang falls to the floor, completely freaked out by what he has done, after the last stab.

Tsao then collapses (again) and falls down the stairs.

"He's still alive." That from Lai, sobbing, in a shot which looks up the stairs at her, Wong, Kuang and Auyang.

Kuang descends the steps and breaks his neck. Tsao's last look of bitter pain, some back and forth between Kuang (stoic) and Wong (nauseous) ...

Wong descends, stepping over the body, and leaves. The camera remains on Kuang, however, as he breathes heavily. The music resumes**, and the camera follows Wong as she leaves the compound and runs down the street as we

FADE TO BLACK

1:10:41 ... that's right, the movie's just about half way over!!!

A little break here to do some analysis:

Listen to the way Lee incorporates sound design, music and image here to maximum advantage:

Begin with Kuang, breathing heavily (above) ... the music (**) starts ... Wong's footsteps = then an accelerando (faster) of footsteps as she runs down the street, which play over the rumbling bass introduction.

As her footsteps fade away, the visual image also fades away to complete blackness and the heartstringtugging music begins as we open on a shot of a tower bathed in a tan-orange-black glow of a full setting sun, which then changes to a bird's-eye shot of a bridge over a river. Japanese soldiers are crossing in trucks. Subtitle:

SHANGHAI
THREE YEARS LATER

So let's see if I've got this right: We started off in '42, went back four years to '38 and now three ahead to '41 (or perhaps '42 if we account for the time that accounts for the '38 section) ...

The filmic rhythm continues without dialogue.

Dead Chinese on the streets. (note: blond prostitutes)
Japanese soldiers walk by a long line of people in line for grain. Wong is in the line. She looks haggard, tired and hungry.
Red Cross removing dead bodies.

We follow Wong as she makes it back to her aunt's apartment, puts away the grain ration she brought back, and grabs a few books (plays) and heads off to school. The aunt explains that she owes Wong a debt after having sold her father's house that he had left to her.

Next scene: Japanese class. Interesting two words she learns: "You" and "Me" !

Next is a trip to the movies to see Penny Serenade.

Music playing.

Cary Grant (Roger): "New tune, isn't it?"
Irene Dunne (Julie): "I beg your pardon?"
Roger: "It's a new tune."
Julie: "I just didn't hear you. Yes, it just came in."
Roger: "It would be nice to dance to."

The Japanese censors then cut into the film with some newsreel propoganda. People are pissed, and begin leaving the theater, en masse ...

Wordlessly, Lee shows us Lai, as she spots Wong leaving the theater; Wong leaving her apartment and -- startled -- looking at someone -- who Lee shows us to be ...

Kuang.

He now explains to Wong how the "real" resistance took care of the Hong Kong mess and smuggled them all out to safety ... and goes on to speak of "unfinished business," meaning Yee, of course. His eyes burrow in on Wong, as he seems to be taking her temperature.

In the next scene, Wong is wending her way through a crowded alley where she meets Kuang and the two of them are ushered into a back room where they meet "Old Wu."

Lee creatively allows this necessary exposition to play out in several parts. As Old Wu narrates the difficult task they have planned for her (including the first order of business: he gives her a "suicide pill," and instructs her in its use), a montage develops, and we sense that time is passing. The director emphasizes this when we see that Wu is wearing different clothing than at the start of the scene ...

She leaves her aunt. Wu is making final preparations. Wong asks him to deliver a letter for her father. As she is changing back into Mak Tai Tai, Wu and Kuang discuss the situation, and -- after reading it -- Wu burns the letter.

Cut; a curtain is pushed aside. Subliminally, I was half-expected Mak Tai Tai to walk out -- but it is Yee!

He is at home and hears the ladies chatting and playing mahjong, and is about to enter his study when he suddenly freezes in his tracks as he hears Wong's voice:

"I should have looked you up sooner, but I've been so busy with Little Mak's business." Yee turns around and makes small talk with the wives and leaves. Yee Tai Tai makes the remark about Mak Tai Tai not smoking in this scene.

But Mak has brought Mrs. Yee some Palmers, which Yee says even she can't get on the black market!

Wong goes up to her room (she is staying with the Yees now!) to fetch the Palmers, meeting Mr. Yee's Big Bad Assistant on the way up (he is going down the steps to fetch something himself) ...

(Of course), Mr. Yee is soon in Wong's room.

This scene is another example of the tremendous EYE-play between the two fantastic leads. So much is being said without words here -- which, of course, makes for a marvelous bit of filmmaking because it so passionately pushes the viewer into the cinematic reality and forces us to participate in the filmic exercise of trying to understand what is being "said."

ECU on Wong as she is taking the carton of cigarettes out of her suitcase. The out-of-focus shadow of someone in the doorway; she turns her head as Yee comes into focus. She smiles at him modestly.

He leans against the door frame.

"This room is modest, but ... it's safer here."

Wong: "I don't want to bother you or Yee Tai Tai."
Yee: "She likes having a mahjong partner here. And I'm hardly home anyway."

Close on Wong as Mak Tai Tai. She seems to be putting on a show of great suppressed affection for Yee here:

"Always so busy. You've lost weight."

Check out Yee's expression here. He seems to be trying to decide if she is sincere or not. He moves in a few steps. On her: coy, nervous ... him: "You have also changed."

Wong takes her time. "It's been three years. The war is still not over. For us both to be here, still alive, is enough." Yee blinks a few times, perhaps still uncertain.

The camera pulls back for a medium shot:

"I've brought a few things. Cigarettes for Yee Tai Tai. I'm afraid I have no gift for you."

Yee: "Your presence itself is a gift." He leaves.

Cut to a massive crowd scene! Wong and Kuang meet on a bus to discuss plans. The gist of this scene is that "Mak Tai Tai" needs more money because she keeps losing at mahjong!

Next is breakfast at the Yee house. Yee Tai Tai is going to play mahjong with Liao Tai Tai and her mother, but has generously given Mak Tai Tai the day off to go to the movies.

Mak Tai Tai is driven by a driver who looks exactly like Tsao to me! But Tsao was killed three years ago, so how is that possible? We see him again when he hands her the piece of paper with "2B" written on it." [If anyone can explain this to me, I'd be delighted...]

So, Sex Scene #1. Instead of the Majestic Theater, Mak Tai Tai has been driven to Apartment #2B for a rendezvous with Yee. The interpersonal dynamic between the two leads is resolutely stamped into this initial scene of "foreplay":

She attempts to "take control" by beginning a striptease -- but Yee rises angrily and slaps her and throws her against a door and has rough sex with her -- which Lee shows us graphically. Once again, if two people are having sex, there isn't usually much dialogue which is advancing the plot.

But in this case, that is not true. Yee has taken control and is intent on demonstrating this control to the ultimate extent. Let's take a guess at what each character must be thinking here -- and what the other character must be thinking about the other!

Yee.

He is certainly thinking to himself -- if this girl objects to this treatment, she can easily say so (for all her squealing, it seems obvious that she's going to hang in there ...) -- and perhaps try to storm out of the room to escape him.

This would prove to Yee that she was not a resistance fighter sent to kill him -- because she had "quit" her mission at that point.

However, I think his suspicions are raised by her acquiescence to his punishing approach, and from now on he is on the lookout for slip-ups!

Wong.

Perhaps she thought of the above scenario where she would escape and perhaps divert suspicion -- but the thought of screwing up the assignment urged her on and she accepted the brutal treatment. Perhaps his savagery even made her own hopes for his elimination real and immediate.

At one point, she looks up at him with "loving" eyes. For a split second, Yee seems to look back at her with some tenderness -- but his expression quickly changes and he continues pushing her into the bed as he bangs her from behind ...

Post-coital; he is getting dressed; she is lying on the bed. He throws her coat at her and leaves. She looks almost asleep. Finally, a quick smile of some sort plays across her face -- begging for interpretation! Mine: she is happy to suffer so that the plan will be fulfilled.

The wives are listening to some beautiful Chinese music. Yee walks in and actually sits down and joins them for a few moments. The upshot of this scene: Wong (Mak Tai Tai) mentions that she'll be going back to Hong Kong in a few days ... Yee looks pissed -- again, all about control ...

Another seemingly innocuous scene: Wong is looking around for the Yee's; she runs into the maid who tells her that Mrs. Yee is still asleep and that Mr. Yee has gone to Nanjing. She asks the maid, " ... for how long?" The maid responds coolly, "I couldn't say."

In the next scene, we see Yee Tai Tai leaving the house to visit one of her mahjong partners, who has sprained her ankle. The minute she is gone, Mr. Yee shows up and the second sex scene begins. Although Wong (Mak Tai Tai) makes a point of telling Yee that she "hates" him, they make love, with a great deal less violence than before.

Suddenly, a cut! It is the German Shepherd -- the exact repetition of the first image of the film. A quick look at the scene from a wider angle, and then Lee cuts back to the lovemaking ...

The only hint of Yee's prior aggressiveness is when he pushes Wong's head back down to the pillow on the several occasions when she tries to lift it to embrace him. He asserts a physical control, without the actual violence of the first time ...

The couple seem to orgasm in unison, wrapped up together like a human pretzel. It is a gorgeous scene -- and perhaps the one moment in the entire film when both Yee and Wong are completely and unabashedly their real selves! The only hint of the spy game they are playing comes at the very end of the scene when Wong asks him to get her an apartment.

The expression on Yee's face is hard to read -- but he is definitely back to thinking in terms of "caution."

In the next scene, Wong enters a movie theater -- this time it is a Chinese film! Kuang is there. The two carry on a long conversation, where Wong expresses her anxiety about getting it all over with, and where Kuang clearly expresses his feelings for her (he won't let her get hurt, he tells her). Possibly, we can see that she cares for him, as well ...

Cut to the wives playing mahjong; gossiping. Cut to Wong, in bed. Rack focus on clock -- it is 4:00 A.M. She hears a noise and goes downstairs to investigate. She opens a door and we see Yee by the fireplace, burning papers. "Close the door," he tells her.

As if the tension needed to be heightened, Lee -- with the benefit of really great acting by Leung and Wei -- cranks it up a notch or two ...

The scene is worth transcribing in order to see how this is done:

After closing the door, Lee trades POV's, as she eyes the photographs and plaques on the walls of his study and he continues to burn his papers.

Yee and Wong now get down to some serious theater. Each is intent on his or her agenda.

Wong: "I've been waiting up for you."
Yee, throwing something in the fire and standing up: "Then you must be very tired ... I am." He walks over to his desk.
Wong: "Yee Tai Tai said you were in Nanjing."
Yee: "Don't believe everything you hear. I've just been busy. We busted a resistance cell. Got twelve agents." POV shift to over-the-shoulder of Yee on Wong, in this darkened room ... I had to interrogate them personally." He is lighting a cigarette. Reverse POV: " ... One by one."

As he lights the cigarette, the POV shifts again -- as we hear the click of his lighter, Wong, her hands crossed and folded over, holding her coat (it must be cold in the house at this hour) must be wondering if her friends -- or she, herself -- have been busted, and he is toying with her at this point.

POV shift. Yee: "Oh, I forget. You're not interested in my work, are you? (POV shift, now on Wong. She is trying to maintain a blank expression.) " ... it's boring." Back on Yee:

"You're so careful never to ask about it." He inhales, waiting for a response.

On her: "It's your business. Just as you don't ask about my business. All I do is sit here waiting for you."

On Yee, as Wong continues: "Maybe you're seeing someone else." On her: "I can't sleep. If this goes on any longer, you'll get tired of me."

She has played her role as best she could. Now it is his turn! He leans forward:

"So that's what you've been thinking these past few days?"
Wong: "And losing money at mahjong. Losing all my hard-earned money as a runner ... I should go upstairs."
Yee: "Get some sleep." He moves towards her and speaks directly into her ear: "Let me take you someplace special tomorrow."

She moves away and starts to leave. The camera frames Yee's face in close-up:

"And don't ever come into this room again."

As innocuous as the above scene may seem, it does what it is supposed to do -- make us even more anxious!

Cut to a street scene; Wong has been waiting in Yee's car for two hours. He's been busy interrogating resistance prisoners. In the car, he begins some sexual play with Wong as he tells her the details of the horrible torture, etc.

This cuts right into the third -- and final -- sex scene. Once again, Yee is never brutal with her -- and they get into sorts of different positions. At one point, Yee seems to become that "little boy" that all men eventually morph into when they make love with women who have some kind of "power" over them!

The key moment in this scene occurs after a short fade ... Wong is on top, and suddenly the camera moves from a position right behind what looks to be Yee's gun, hanging next to the bed.

Wong looks at it -- while she continues to hump away -- but, check it out! -- Yee seems to have seen her looking at it -- and then she seems to notice that he had noticed her looking at it and then ...

She shoves a pillow over his head!

Definitely the most erotic and passionate of the three sex scenes, they finish and lie peacefully together ... but suddenly Wong starts to sob heavily.

Cut to the peaceful river. The camera cranes up to a rooftop-view and holds for a few seconds.

Cut to an interior. Kuang, Wong and Old Wu, in an extremely intense, drawn-out scene:

Wu and his superiors are impressed with Wong. Kuang suggests they make their play soon, but Wu shoots him down -- the resistance has suffered setbacks and Wu wants to proceed cautiously. Wong explodes in an anguished explanation of her relationship with Yee (she insinuates that he beats her until she bleeds and he feels "alive" -- something we only saw in the first sex scene. Perhaps Lee felt a need to pull back the actual depiction of this continuing violence, in order that Yee might not become too cartoonish a monster!) -- and after Wu storms out, Kuang leaves, shooting Wong a look a real pity and sadness ...

The same bridge we saw from the last time shift ... but now it is nighttime, and we are focused on a car going in the opposite direction from the trucks of Japanese troops ...

Again, her driver sure looks like Tsao to me (see above) ... papers are checked, and they enter the "Japanese district." A few neon signs; two geishas walking behind Wong, who enters an inn. We see Japanese soldiers dancing with Chinese women (Wong notes this) and as Wong and the madam of the inn make their way up the stairs to meet Yee, she is accosted by a drunk Japanese Colonel Nakamura, who tries to take her. In the confusion, another soldier -- a Colonel Sato -- is knocked down, and the inn madam has her hands full getting a geisha to give Sato some attention, as well as explaining that Wong is a "customer," not an employee! The entire scene is given an air of craziness and unrealness as Lee's camera comes to rest on an elderly Japanese woman playing the shamisen, her expression completely blank and oblivious to all the noise and confusion which surrounds her ...

Finally, she arrives in a large room, empty except for Yee, and we begin the denouement of this film. Whatever Yee may suspect of Wong, he is honest with her about the fact that it is "all over" for both the Japanese and the Chinese collaborators like himself! There is a brief moment of "solidarity" as they both agree on how much they hate the Japanese music in the background ("They sing like they're crying. Like dogs howling for their dead masters.")

She asks him to let her sing for him. She begins to dance and sing in a lovely, pure sweet voice (Wei Tang's own?):

"From the end of the earth
To the farthest sea
I search and search for my heart's companion
A young girl sings
While he accompanies her
Your heart is my heart
Your heart is my heart
Looking north from my mountain nest
My tears fall and wet my blouse
Missing him, I will not rest
Only love that last through hard times is true
Only love that last through hard times is true
In life, who does not
Cherish the springtime of youth?
A young girl to her man is like thread to its needle
Ah, my beautiful man
We're like a threaded needle, never to be separated
We're like a threaded needle, never to be separated."

Yee is moved to tears and applauds. There is much to guess about here regarding his true feelings. Does he already know she is a spy, and thus cries for her fate -- or is he truly won over by her now, and is crying because -- as he said -- it is "all over"?

As he drops her off at home (he still has "work" to do!), he gives her an envelope and instructs her to deliver it to a Khalid Saeed Uddin (the great Bollywood actor, Anupam Kher).

Of course, first Wu and Kuang open the sealed envelope, which contains only Yee's business card. the reseal it and she prepares to deliver it, despite their nervousness ...

On their way out, Kuang finally confesses his love and kisses her. When she asks him why he didn't do that three years ago, Kuang has no response. Their love is, and always was, doomed ...

Cut to another gorgeous street scene -- Wong arriving at the jewelers. A quick look around and she sees the other five members of her group, in various positions around the street. She must assume that it is on!

She gives Anupam Kher the envelope and soon he is showing her three beautiful jewels, which Yee is paying to have set into a ring for her (" ... your friend -- he said you were quite particular. In fact he was afraid to make a choice himself") ...

She stares silently (dumbfounded? too nervous to speak?) at the three jewels. He asks if he can measure her finger. She remains silent. I suppose he interprets this to mean she is not satisfied with the jewels he has shown her, and so he pulls out the coup de grace -- a large, pink-white diamond.

"Six carats," the Hindu states, in English.
"Quail egg," Wong replies, in Chinese.

Cut. A black telephone rings. But only once. (sound familiar?)

It begins ringing again. Kuang picks it up.

This is the exact conversation that we witnessed over two hours ago, but this time it is from Kuang's POV. Eventually, we see that the five others, and Old Wu are listening to Kuang's conversation. It is an exact reverse of the earlier scene, which cut to Kuang at the very end of the phone call -- here it cuts to Wong!

We see the same exact cuts from earlier (lipstick on coffee cup, putting on perfume), but then we go into new, unseen territory:

She hears and sees a black car pull up across the street (not difficult with cars being so rare) and leaves the café. In the car, Yee explains he is late, but as they pass the jewelry store, she suggests they see if the ring is ready ... Yee has the car turn around and they stop across the street from the store.

Yee leaves his driver and bodyguard in the car. As they cross the street, Wong looks around frantically (two whip-pans and a quick upward camera movement) and Lee suddenly moves into slow motion ... Yee is staring straight ahead, tempered steel ...

As they reach the curb, Lee gradually moves back into regular speed, as they enter the shop and man stationed outside the door gives the couple a look ...

POV inside the shop as they enter. Lee pulls off a nice axial cut here, as he pushes on Yee: "Are you all right?"
Wong: "I'm fine."

Two men are standing in front of a jewelry case. Wong notices them, as does Yee. After the clerk tells them to go up the stairs, Yee moves first and as Wong follows, she gives the two men a look ...

The couple are seated to look at the "masterpiece" just as we cut back downstairs to the two men leaving the store, which Wong notices from the window above ...

As the jeweler hands her the red box which contains the ring, the only sound we hear for the next few moments is the tick-tick of the clock, as Lee cuts back and forth between the players, until finally Wong turns to Yee and says:

"Do you like the diamond I picked?"
Yee: "The diamond itself is of no interest to me. I just want to see it on your hand."

And so, Wong Chia Chi shoves this monstrosity (from a monster!) onto the middle finger of her left hand.

Jeweler: "Congratulations, miss." (in English) ... she begins to remove the ring.
Yee: "Keep it on."

Wong seems conflicted. "I wouldn't want to wear it on the street." Yee moves in closer, and the camera moves closer on Yee.

"Please. You're with me."

And now begins the crucial final moments (appropriately, a new music cue starts here) -- when every glance, every gesture has some kind of meaning -- and Lee is begging us to participate in the experience and draw our own conclusions. I will draw mine, as follows:

Yee holds her newly-adorned left hand and strokes it tenderly. Wong has a funny look on her face, as if she has been confused, and things are becoming clear ...

Lee moves close on Yee -- a really stunning portrait (2:20:15) -- and truly, Tony Leung conveys a look of a true, and deep love in Yee's heart at this moment. There is no subterfuge, no game-playing, no clever interrogation!

He simply looks like a man in love with a woman.

Back on Wong for several seconds. Definitely, she is imagining that maybe he really does love her. What are her duties? To her friends? To the resistance? To her self, her own soul? His soul? Does he deserve to die?

Lee has painted a vivid portrait of Wong Chia Chi to this point. Does not the above seem true to the character? And -- after all -- she is an amateur, as far as resistance activities are concerned. She's already witnessed the horror of the first "assassination."

Back on Yee. He looks upon Wong with soulful, truthful eyes. I see no deceit. I think he completely believes that she is innocent at this point -- or perhaps she may be guilty of something -- but that this love is too important to interfere with whatever that may be!

Again, I think you can ascertain this from the look in Tony Leung's eyes, alone!

Back to Wong. There is a sound; perhaps a door being shut. The words which come out are part of a simple exhalation of breath -- she is speaking as her brain (emotional section) is sending the signal to her larynx -- and the amazing words emerge from her mouth like a puff of smoke:

"Go, now."

Cut to him. It was just a little breath of air with some soft sound. He didn't hear what she said.

"Hmm?"

This time the words are audible:

"Go, now."

Yee's eyes quickly change from love to confusion to abject terror! He seems to keep his wits about him as he bounds down the stairs, checks for danger -- dashes out the door, knocks down anyone in his way and screams:

"The door!"

They open it -- he dives in (!) -- and the car speeds off.

She leaves the jewelers and wanders around the street trying to find a bicycle-taxi. Finally, she flags one down and directs him to Ferguson Road.

"Going home?"
"Yes."

As he pedals through the streets, the man looks positively ecstatic -- perhaps because he recognizes that he has picked up a rich person and will make a good tip -- as contrasted with the tragic expression on Wong's face ...

Eventually, they reach a roadblock. She removes the suicide pill from her coat and holds it in her hand. She flashes back to the moment at the theater when she and her friends had decided to become resistance fighters ...

Cut to Yee. His assistant comes in (they are in his study) and we learn that everyone except Old Wu has been captured. Yee is furious that his assistant (and others) suspected Wong, but kept it from Yee because of his "involvement." The assistant has assumed that Yee would want to question Wong, but he does not. His "involvement" -- including any feelings of any kind -- is over.

He quickly condemns the group to death and closes the file. The assistant hands him the "quail egg."

"It's not mine," he intones. The assistant puts it on the desk. Lee frames the ring as it jiggles back and forth on the desk, its reflection shining on the desk.

The execution scene is brief and no killing is shown. The final shot is of the group, kneeling at the edge of the quarry, as the camera cranes over them into the blackness ...

Cut to Yee. Home after another hard day at the office. The sound of the wives playing mahjong. The women are talking about where to go for dinner.

Yee opens the door to Mak Tai Tai's old room. He slowly walks over and sits down on the bed. Yee Tai Tai appears at the door.

"What's going on? Your assistant and two men from the ministry came by and took away her things ... and some things from your study."

Only a small retangle of light frames Yee's face now.

"Say nothing. If anyone asks, Mak Tai Tai had an emergency and went back to Hong Kong."

"What happened?"

The camera is now behind Yee in this darkened room, but Lee has placed a mirror where we get a perfect look at his features.

"Go downstairs. Keep playing."

Yee's shadow plays against the white bedsheet. Then it disappears and the camera holds on the wrinkled sheet for a moment as we

FADE TO BLACK

End credits

***

Extras:

Tiles of Deception, Lurid Affections: Discover how Ang Lee's passion fueled every step of this erotic thriller -- from recreating the period to directing the talented cast.

Worthwhile; informative and interesting!

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