Posted by: Janice | October 11, 2007

Lust, Caution

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I was reading the forums for “Lust, Caution” on http://www.rottentomatoes.com, and was so provoked by the following post saying that the movie reinforced stereotypes about Asian women being submissive whores and romanticizing rape that I put up a post in response.

I must preface this by saying I have really enjoyed Ang Lee’s work before. Seeing the local preview last night though, I gotta say I was really disapointed and uncomfortable. After the second sex scene, (and let’s be honest here, it was a RAPE scene,) I was getting myself ready to walk out. But I stuck it out. I kept waiting for the heroine to wisen up or actually use some tactic other than spreading her legs. Thing is, looking at the separate images represented of Asian men and women, this film just seems to reinforce the stereotypes of Asian men either being weak (as most of the other Asian men in the movie were) or sadistic and cold (as with Mr. Tony Leung’s character). In the heroine’s case, she starts as a optimistic, smart young woman and ends up a being the same old submissive (especially sexually), quiet girl that plays into all the male world’s dreams about Asian women. I was disgusted. And that Ang Lee, an Asian man, made this is…ironic, to say the least. Maybe I started off bad; two older white men behind me were having a vaguely suggestive conversion about Thailand (prostitutes), so that didn’t help. I just really hate these stereoptypes. Most of the other people in the audience were gushing afterwards to the studio pollsters that they loved the movie, and many were Asian. Could they not see what was going on? To be sure, I found the setting of Japanese-occupied China to be intriguing and moving, especially seeing the early optimism of the theatre student (as sadly foreshadowing as I knew it would end up), and Tang Wei’s performance is one of the bravest of any female actor ever. But there was no seduction going on, just sadism, masochism, and the reinforcement of Asian women as idealized whores through romanticized rape.”

Hmm. Asian women as idealized whores through romanticized rape? Thats a pretty strong accusation for “Lust, Caution”. I’d have to admit that this notion didn’t even cross my mind when I watched the movie, so your post totally got me thinking. I have to say though – I disagree with the fact that the movie is fulfilling racist, misogynistic sex fantasies about submissive Asian women.

First of all, Wong Chia Chi is, if anything, an against-the-stereotype Asian female character. She is educated, smart, and has the freedom to choose what to do with her life. She chooses to use her abilities as an actress to play the part of Mak Tai Tai, in an effort to lure the Japanese collaborator Mr Yee to his death. As a student and not a trained spy, there is very little else she could have done in the spirit of patriotism. At first, it is all fun and games, and the act involves little more than dressing up and improvising. After she loses her virginity to a fellow student however, it turns deadly serious. At that point, she knows that there is no turning back. She knew exactly what she was getting herself into, and what role she had to play, what she had to do in order to succeed. You can argue that this very notion of a woman being sexual bait in order to bring about the downfall of a powerful man is offensive. I don’t disagree. However, this is not just an Asian strategy either (see Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book”). In addition, this film (and also, Eileen Chang’s short story upon which this movie was based) goes beyond this set-up to make the point that after Mr Yee takes the bait, it becomes less clear who is the predator and who is the prey. At the end, they both become victim and victimizer, and they both lose.

Mak Tai Tai does not turn into a submissive, sexual, quiet girl who yields to Mr Yee’s every demand in bed. She does play the part of a whore/plaything, but she is not a helpless rape victim. After she gets Yee to bed her, she totally gains power. In fact, to look at the movie’s sex scenes as merely rape scenes, or sm scenes, is missing the point. These scenes are intense, raw, revealing portraits about Mak and Yee, and they chart the progress of their relationship with each other, as they begin to let their guard down, and fall in lust/love. The sex starts with a violent rape, and turns increasing mutual, especially in the last scene. Ang Lee spent eleven days painstakingly shooting those three sex scenes, why? Because they are the few moments in which we see Mr Yee and Mak Tai Tai actually revealing themselves to one another, both physically and emotionally and it is important for us as an audience to register all the mistrust, fear confusion, pain, anger, sadness, lust, and vulnerabilities that is there between them. Otherwise, this relationship simply would not make sense.

The first sex scene turns into a rape, because at that point, Mr Yee still does not trust Mak Tai Tai. Also, he has probably been hardened by the years of interrogating and executing prisoners, and this shows us his nasty streak, his power trip. He was probably also taking out his anger and frustrations of not being able to consummate his relationship with her earlier. Either way, yes, indeed, that was a rape. But after it is all over, Mak smiles. No, this is not the wishful thinking of a rape fantasy in which the victim actually enjoyed the rape. Instead, Mak is smiling because shes’s triumphed – she has Yee in her clutches, and the plan to assasinate him can be set in motion. Except, as they become ever more entangled with each other, she becomes more and more confused, and questions whether she has really fallen for him, and whether she can really bring herself to let him be killed. This is most evident in the scene in which she meets with her leader, when he reminds her that her primary duty is loyalty to the country, and she breaks into a tirade, asking him if he understands that she is using her own body to trap him, and that to do so she must also open her heart to him, and all the pain, tears, and blood that goes with it, and she didn’t know if she could take it anymore. And the two men, shocked, walks out without saying a word, leaving her sitting there in silence.

If anything, that scene is enough to show that Ang Lee was not merely making a movie that reinforces Asian stereotypes, and instead, is telling a complex story about human nature with his usual compassion and insight. How hard it is to live during wartime. How hard it is to be a woman. How hard it is to love.

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