Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 11/11/07 w/ Additional Edits.
In 2005, Taiwan-born director Ang Lee released Brokeback Mountain to the world and garnered a surprise reaction. The film about gay cowboys, drew rave reviews with critics as well as surprising smash in the box office along with a load of parodies all over the Internet. The film walked away with several Oscars nominations plus three wins including Best Director for Ang Lee. Despite the upset and controversial loss of Best Picture to Paul Haggis' race-relation drama Crash, Lee moved forward as he decides to return to his native Taiwan to create an espionage thriller that pushed the limits of his directing style entitled Se Jie (Lust, Caution).
Directed by Ang Lee based on Eileen Chang's story, the film tells the story of late 1930s/early 1940s Shanghai when a young woman plays spy in order to stop a man working with the Japanese only to be seduced by him. Reuniting with longtime collaborator and producer James Schamus who co-wrote the adapted screenplay with Hui-Ling Wang, the film reveals Lee's moody, harrowing tale of passion and suspense. Starring Tony Leung Chui-Wai, Tang Wei, Lee-Hom Wang, Anupam Kher, and Joan Chen. Se Jie is an eerie, provocative spy drama that is also seductive and hypnotic from Ang Lee.
It's 1942 in Shanghai as a young woman named Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) under the guise of Mrs. Mak is playing mah-jong with Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen) as she later goes to an English restaurant to make a phone call to Kuang Yu Min (Lee-Home Wang). Wong sits down to think about how she's gotten herself into this role as spy. Four years ago, she was just a young student in Hong Kong who is also an aspiring actress along with friend Liang Junsheng (Ko Yue-Lin). After a successful performance in a play directed by Kuang. Things seem to go great for the young students as Kuang suddenly gets an offer to help the Chinese resistance in their war against Japan. After making contacts with the resistance, Kuang decides to organize a plan to help the resistance in aiding the assassination of Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chui-Wai), who is a high-ranking official working directly for a national traitor named Wang Jingwei.
Liang and Wong join Kuang with Wong playing the role of Mrs. Mak, the wife of an export-import salesman as she finds herself in the posh circle of Mrs. Yee. Rarely capturing a glimpse of Mr. Yee, they finally meet during a game of mah-jong as she helps him pick out clothes and such. Befriending the Yees became easy while she finds herself getting closer to the much-cautious Mr. Yee. Realizing that she might become a mistress of the man, she sacrifices her virginity in order to prepare for the role. Unfortunately, a chance to assassinate Mr. Yee fails thanks to Mr. Tsao (Chin Ka Lok) who destroyed their chance as things went awry with Wong leaving the team.
Three years later as she lives in Shanghai with her aunt and as a student learning Japanese, she meets Kuang who is now working directly for the secretive Chinese resistance. Kuang along with a spy named Wu (Ton Chung-Hua) who learned about her role. He gives her background files as Mrs. Mak where she would continue her role as another attempt to assassinate Mr. Yee was planned. Catching up with Mrs. Yee, she and Mr. Yee find themselves again in good company as eventually, a sexual-driven affair ensues. Realizing how close she is getting into her role, she starts to become confused by Mr. Yee's charms as their sexual affair troubles Kuang. Learning more of Yee's role, Wong realizes the dark position she's in as she suddenly finds herself in a comfortable, closer world that is a shock to the very guarded Mr. Yee. With the plan getting closer, it's all up to Wong to play her part as she becomes confused about her own loyalty.
While the film’s plot of a young spy trying to play her role while being seduced by her target is easy. The journey that screenwriters James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang take through Eileen Chang's short story is mesmerizing. In reality, the film is about performance and how it can distort things including loyalty. The film is not really a thriller or fits into any kind of period drama but rather a character study and the character that is the heart of the film is Wong Chia Chi. Her development from this shy, quiet young student who exudes the kind of ideal innocence anyone is startling from that to in the film’s beginning and third act, a woman who is confused by her role and morals.
It's a very complex character and so is the target in Mr. Yee. Here's a man who is indeed a villain but also human. Despite what he does for the Japanese, he comes home feeling somewhat detached by his own wife who enjoys her time shopping and playing mah jong. In Wong as Mrs. Mak, he finds the cure he needs for his loneliness and companionship.
Ang Lee's eerie, observant direction definitely harkens towards not just some of the provocative style of Italian auteur Bernardo Bertolucci and 1940s cinema but also the internal moral conflict of the late Ingmar Bergman. Lee's vision of China and its occupation by Japan in those times is true that includes a line of Mr. Yee being aware that Japan's day in the countries are numbered. Lee definitely gets a lot of things right in terms of the time while the atmosphere plays to how the Japanese and working-class Chinese are defined in their environment. Still, it's all about character as Wong and Mr. Yee try to figure out their own worlds while figuring out how to take their relationship away from the politics.
Then there's the film's sex scenes which have garnered the film the very-dreaded NC-17 rating in the U.S. Yes, the sex scenes between Tony Leung and Tang Wei are very graphic indeed. Lots of flesh are shown and such to the point it's almost real that will also lead questions into whether the sex was simulated or not. Sex scenes are often used as an excuse to show naked body parts but through Lee's direction. There's layers in those scenes to reveal the complex emotions of both Mr. Yee and Wong and how they react to each other. The sex is complementary to those emotions that even in their Kama Sutra-like positions, are wonderfully presented. While for a film that's 158-minutes long, there's a few issues in pacing that does drag a bit. Still, Lee's direction and his approach to the story is solid throughout as he's starting to become a real cinematic master.
Mexican cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who worked with Lee on Brokeback Mountain, brings some amazing colors to the camera with its bright, evocative shots of Shanghai, Hong Kong, and parts of Malaysia for many of the film's exquisite exterior scenes. Prieto's camera in the exterior scenes are very intimate with low-lights and colors to convey the dark atmosphere of the film, notably the sex scenes that are wonderfully shot without being too polished. Production designer Lai Pan along with a team of art directors do amazing work in recreating 1940s Shanghai with its restaurants, cars, and such including a scene in a Japanese restaurant that is jaw-dropping to watch. Editor Tim Squyres does some fascinating, meditative editing to convey the tension of the film as well as its suspense throughout its 158-minute running time despite a few pacing issues in some scenes.
Sound editor Phillip Stockton does some great work with the sound to convey the different atmospheres of poor China and Japanese-occupied Shanghai with its sound effects and tone. The music of Alexandre Desplat is very enchanting with its chiming, majestic orchestral score. Desplat brings a lot of grand arrangements to convey the film’s suspense and drama with a lot of subtlety. The music also plays to the times with piano music and such including a traditional pop song called A Singing Girl At The Edge Of The World that is performed onset by Tang Wei in an amazing scene at a Japanese restaurant.
The casting of the film is wonderfully assembled with small performances from Johnson Yuen, Ying-hsien Kao, Chih-ying Chu, and Ko Yue-Lin as Kuang's fellow students who are apart of the early organization in Mr. Yee’s assassination plot. Other small roles from Ton Chung-Hua as Wu, Indian actor Anupam Kher of Gurinder Chadha's Bend It Like Beckham fame as a jeweler, and the incomparable Joan Chen as Mrs. Yee are brilliantly performed. Notably Chen as a charismatic, mah-jong playing wife who cracks jokes and manages to steal a few scenes. Chinese pop singer Lee-Home Wang is great as Kuang, a director and resistance soldier who worries about Wong's life while dealing with the role she has to play for him as his performance is superb.
Tony Leung Chui-Wai, who is known by many for his work with Wong Kar-Wai, is brilliant as the very guarded, cautious Mr. Yee. Leung brings a lot of subtlety and brutality to his role as the government official who seems to deal with the loneliness of his work while having a relationship that's a bit brutal but also fulfilling. Leung is really solid in his role while proving that behind every villain, there's some redeeming qualities in him. In a true breakout performance, Tang Wei is phenomenal as Wong Chia Chi. A very multi-layered performance full of complexity, Wei brings a mixture of innocence and passion in the film's early sequences while in the second act, she is full of charm and wonder as she deals with reality as well as Mr. Yee. By the end of the film, she is confused, very flawed, and also older as her performance is very layered as if she's performing within a performance.
The chemistry between Leung and Wei are amazing to watch as they perform together in scenes that are so hypnotic, it's almost as if they're acting in an old-school 1940s film. For the sex scenes, both actors expose themselves not just physically but emotionally as it's very erotic but also eerie to watch. With Leung being a man with little charm, he also manages to be very relaxed with Wei acting with him. Notably a scene in a Japanese restaurant as she sings an old Chinese song that is amazing to watch. Overall, the performances of Leung and Wei make the entire film worth watching.
While Se Jie isn't a perfect film, it's still a powerful, provocative period thriller from Ang Lee and company with brilliant performances from Tony Leung Chui-Wai and Tang Wei. While the film might have something to offer for art-house film buffs for its amazing acting, great set pieces, and its observant, eerie direction. It's a shame that the film is not being widely accepted by a mainstream audience. Then again, a film like this won't really work with a general audience for three reasons. One, it's 158-minutes with a meditative pacing that won't get everyone's attention. Two, it's in subtitles that will annoy a general portion of American audiences. Three and finally, it's NC-17 for its graphic sex scenes. Despite all of those issues, Se Jie is still a solid film from Ang Lee who continues to amaze audiences with such provocative topics and themes.
Ang Lee Films: Pushing Hands - The Wedding Banquet - Eat Drink Man Woman - Sense & Sensibility (1995 film) - The Ice Storm - Ride with the Devil - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - The Hire: Chosen - Hulk - Brokeback Mountain - Taking Woodstock - Life of Pi - Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk - The Auteurs #19: Ang Lee
(C) thevoid99 2011