After seeing Brokeback Mountain, with its sanctified couplings against a backdrop of purple mountain majesties, some of us felt that Ang Lee owed us a dirty movie with more bodily fluids. Lust, Caution is that movie—for maybe 10 of its 158 minutes. The rest of the film is absorbing, though. It opens in 1942, in Shanghai under Japanese rule. The heroine, Mak Tai Tai (Tang Wei), sits at a table with three older women, gossiping and playing mah-jongg. What the others don’t know is that her name is really Wong Chia Chi, she’s a member of the Chinese Resistance, and she’s there to entrap the husband of her hostess (Joan Chen), a top official in the collaborationist government. The scene, like the movie, is on the lengthy side, but it isn’t boring. By and by, the husband, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), shows up and gazes steadily at Tai Tai/Chia Chi. The atmosphere is fraught. There’s something about watching a luscious young woman sitting rigid in a blue satin dress buttoned up to her throat tossing mah-jongg tiles—clack clack clackclack clack—that makes a man want to see her naked, fast.
Mah-jongg and Ang Lee are a good fit—which I don’t mean remotely as an insult. The game is elegant, formal, and deliberate, but with a hint of repressed violence, as you know if you’ve seen old ladies play. Mah-jongg brackets Lust, Caution, which ends with a mournful cello and the staccato snap of tiles. The film, which jumps back to Hong Kong in 1938 to show how Chia Chi arrived at that table, is an enlargement of a short story by Eileen Chang, about whom Lee writes in an afterword to a new, movie-tie-in edition: “To me, no writer has ever used the Chinese language as cruelly…and no story of hers is as beautiful or as cruel as ‘Lust, Caution.’” What drew him to Chang’s work is plain. Like Lee’s other films, Lust, Caution grows out of a tension between essence and form—between a person’s emotions and the role he or she must play. Obedient Chinese girls are not supposed to sword-fight Wutan style, corkscrew through the air over rooftops, or have rough sex with hairy bandits. Marlboro men aren’t supposed to smooch.
Young women patriotically playacting to lure war criminals to their deaths aren’t supposed to give themselves completely to their prey, either, but our heroine is a romantic who weeps at movies and loses herself in her performances. As Chia Chi, with straight hair and no makeup, Tang Wei looks and acts 15, and her face is wide open, guileless. As Tai Tai, she’s ripe, lissome, and teasingly furtive. She meets Yee’s eyes, looks away quickly, and meets his eyes again. When he brutally takes her, the first time, the girl underneath cries out in pain and disgust, but the actress, when it’s over, gives a little smile. Or is it the other way around?
Yee is even more difficult to anatomize. One of Hong Kong’s most galvanic stars (in Hero, he made sand-writing overpoweringly erotic), Leung has shrunk and aged himself, so that Yee seems ill at ease in his body. Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book had a similar scenario (Resistance lass seduces Axis bigwig), but the heroine’s Gestapo lover was a sweetie under those jackboots and swastikas. Leung’s Yee has been coarsened by presiding over tortures and executions, and those bad habits come out in the bedroom. He knows that Tai Tai might be a spy—he has ferreted out other would-be lovers/assassins. But the risk brings him out of his paranoid-authoritarian little shell.
How’s the sex? Terrific, but not because the bodies are so great (although they are) or the positions so arousing (although there is a kind of pretzel-y thing they do I’d like to see diagrammed). It’s because instead of a tasteful fade to black, we see another dimension of character. Who has the real power? Who’s caught in whose web? At their most enmeshed, Chia Chi and Yee are both the spider and both the fly. (We should thank James Schamus, the head of Focus Features, for standing his ground and refusing to order Lee to trim the sex scenes for an R rating. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that he’s also the movie’s co-writer and co-producer.)
There are other “actors” in over their heads in Lust, Caution—some of them members of Chia Chi’s little theater troupe–cum–assassination squad, a group of ex–drama majors who try to enlarge their stage to encompass the world. There’s a scene that isn’t from the story—a grueling bloodbath that rips the movie’s fabric but drives home the point (literally) that killing someone for real is murder. Lee studs Lust, Caution with reflections in mirrors and windows to underline the larger question of identity: Which is the true face and which is the mask? But you don’t have to bother with all that stuff—Tang Wei’s face is nice enough in all its guises.
In his trim memoir An Actor and His Time, John Gielgud quotes an exhortation by Edith Evans: “Don’t indulge yourself by showing off; the moment that you begin to find that you can do something well, you must control it and do it more selectively.” She’s talking to actors, but the line could be directed at Wes Anderson, the fantastically talented writer-director whose twee rectangular dollhouse frames (with their lush colors and coy off-symmetry) tend to upstage his characters and their emotions—unless those emotions are all along the lines of, “Why am I trapped in this dollhouse?”
The good news is that in the short Hotel Chevalier, the overture to Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (it’s screening at the New York Film Festival and can be seen online), form and content magically gel. The setting is a Paris hotel room, the male character a tense, forlorn young man named Jack (Jason Schwartzman). A phone call breaks his solipsistic reverie: His ex-girlfriend has tracked him down. A backstory emerges, vaguely. She was unfaithful, it seems, and he fled, unable to cope with his jealousy and rage. Now he waits on the bed in a trim gray suit, a little boy dressed to look like a man but more like a boy than before. The woman (a curvy, elfin Natalie Portman) arrives and wastes little time before taking off her clothes. Is she back to stay or just reaffirming her hold? Does she even know what she wants? The room, with its foreshortened background, is a child’s hiding place, violated now by this messy grown-up sex stuff. The wealthy child can control his environment, but how can he control his lover? The refrain of a song he plays over and over is, “I want to look inside your head/Yes I do.”
The feature that follows, The Darjeeling Limited proper, is hit and miss, but its tone of lyric melancholy is remarkably sustained. Jack turns out to be Jack Whitman, one of three brothers who haven’t seen each other since the death of their father in a taxicab accident. They’re reuniting in India for what’s meant to be a journey of self-discovery, on a train called the Darjeeling Limited—another of Anderson’s overdesigned dollhouses, but with a crucial difference: This one moves through a real countryside.
It’s quickly apparent that these brothers—children of privilege, with no apparent financial worries—are floundering in the void left by their dad. Francis (Owen Wilson), his face still bandaged from a horrific accident, has assumed a patriarchal role, planning the brothers’ days down to the breaks for meditation. Peter (Adrien Brody) is six weeks away from becoming a real father—which for some reason has spurred him to leave for India without mentioning his trip to his wife. Jack is still running from the memory of his girlfriend, whose answering machine he regularly phones (he has the code) to listen to her messages. All three drink, smoke, and pass narcotics bottles back and forth. The train is like a movable circus, with a prim, disapproving steward (Waris Ahluwalia) who struggles to keep the fatherless boys in line—he’d fit right into a Marx Brothers movie—and a stewardess named Rita (Amara Karan) with a dizzy attraction to the woebegone Jack. (A sample line: “I have a boyfriend. I just broke up with him. Or I’m about to.”)
Anderson wrote The Darjeeling Limited with Schwartzman and Roman Coppola. They’re gifted, clever men, but none of them have much perspective on their characters’ overentitlement. What they know, of course, is what it’s like to grow up with insanely narcissistic parents who leave them both spoiled and bereft—globe-trotting basket cases. (The brothers’ vulnerability is underscored by Wilson’s recent suicide attempt—his bandages seem chillingly prophetic.) Trudging through rural India after their train has abandoned them, the Whitmans happen on three boys who tumble into rapids. Is their fragility supposed to mirror the Whitmans’? Is their tightly knit, patriarchal community supposed to offer a contrast? I’m not sure what Anderson is going for, but the interlude feels exploitive.
The final sequence saves the film. The journey turns out to have an end—a convent in the foothills of the Himalayas, where the Whitman boys’ mother (Anjelica Huston) has fled to become a nun. Huston gives one of her irrationally great performances—the mother’s fear of her sons’ demands is between the lines, not in them, and you don’t put it all together until she has left the scene. Visually, Anderson tries something new: He zooms in and out of his frames; he violates his own immaculate canvases. India turns out to be the perfect Wes Anderson movie set. You almost believe that the color has a spiritual component, that it’s a way of clinging to hope in the face of an indifferent universe.
Snapping at the heels of The Bourne Ultimatum is another motion-sickness thriller, The Kingdom—both so swervy and vertiginous and nerve-jangling that they ought to sell Dramamine at the concession stands. Sensationally directed by Peter Berg, it’s a combination forensics detective movie (car bomb blows up secure American compound in Saudi Arabia—who dunnit and how can we stop him from doing it again?) and red-meat waste-the-terrorists action picture. The subversive little twist is that the FBI team (led by Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, and Jennifer Garner) has to bully its way into the country and, once there, tiptoe around its out-of-touch princes while at the same time steering clear of its rabidly anti-American populace. Yes, this is our ally. Cooper has become a master at staying in the background yet upstaging everyone, and Garner is the ne plus ultra of action heroines: Those pillowy lips say at once “Kiss me” and “Kiss my ass.”
Mah-jongg, long the game of Jewish grandmothers, has reemerged to become something of a hipster pastime, as reported by Bust magazine. But Williamsburg women, beware: A recent Hong Kong Medical Journal report said that mah-jongg has been found to induce epileptic seizures in some players, brought on by the critical thinking it takes to play with those nifty tiles. The Journal cited 23 cases of mah-jongg-related seizures (three in Hong Kong and twenty in Taiwan). Hoping to head off an epidemic, doctors are recommending just watching the game instead of participating.
Directed by Ang Lee. Focus Features. NC-17.
The Darjeeling Limited
Directed by Wes Anderson. Fox Searchlight. R.
Directed by Peter Berg. Universal. R.