Eights years before Fifty Shades of Grey hit the movie screens, Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution was embroiled in controversy because of explicit sex scenes that depicted bondage, dominance and submission, and sadomasochism. Unlike Fifty Shades of Grey, however, in Lust, Caution sex was not central to the theme of the film but, rather, a necessary consequence of a grand plan that had its roots in a war that ordinary people did not want to be part of.
In 1937 when the Second Sino-Japanese War commenced, Republic of China consisted of most of what is today’s mainland China, Taiwan and Mongolia. Japan was expanding its power over Asia in search of raw resources and labor. As part of that expansion, it occupied several key cities in China. The Japanese occupation of China overlaps in part with World War II but it should be emphasized that the conflict between China and Japan has a much longer history.
The events in director Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution take place between 1938 and 1942.
In 1938, Wang Jiazhi flees Shanghai after being left behind by her father who had gone to London with her brother. She settles in Hong Kong and starts attending university where she becomes part of a patriotic drama group led by Kuang Yumin. The (naive) idealism of the group leads them to hatch a plan to assassinate Mr. Yee, a Chinese businessmen who collaborated with the Japanese by interrogating and torturing those suspected of being unsympathetic to the Japanese invaders. Wang Jiazhi transforms as Mrs. Mai, wife of a rich trader. Her job — to seduce Mr. Yee so that the others in the group could kill him. The plan goes awry when Mr. Yee suddenly leaves for Shanghai. In the aftermath, one of Mr. Yee’s henchmen discovers the plot, the students kill him and they disband to go into hiding.
In 1942, Kuang Yumin, now an undercover agent of the Kuomintang (KMT) seeks out Wang Jiazhi to rehash their foiled plan to kill Mr. Yee who had become head of the secret police. Again posing as Mrs. Mai, Kuang Yumin becomes the mistress of Mr. Yee. The assassination is scheduled on the day that Mr. Yee accompanies Mrs. Mai to the jeweler to pick up a ring he had ordered for her. Mrs. Mai, overcome by emotion as she had already fallen in love with Mr. Yee, whispers to him, “Go, now.” In complete understanding, Mr. Yee escapes. Kuang Yumin, Wang Jiazhi and the rest of the group are arrested, sentenced and shot to death.
Based on a novella by Eileen Chang that, in turn, was based loosely on actual events that transpired between 1930 and 1940, Ang Lee’s film adaptation of Lust, Caution was a critical success that won major awards. It also raised controversy because of three sex scenes between Mrs. Mai and Mr. Yee that included full frontal nudity which the director defended as essential to the story (the way I saw it, they paralleled the power dynamics between the lovers as well as that between Japan, the invader, and China, the invaded).
Through their lovemaking you can see he wants the truth, though he doesn’t know what that is any more.” Sex becomes a kind of interrogation, escalated by violence, through which they both “have an actual taste of love, although of course they have to deny it.” [Source]
Deny the love? Yes, for Mr. Yee because, in his attempt to survive the war unscathed,
tenderness had become alien to him. For Mrs. Mai, because despite the unintended emotional involvement, she was in his bed not to be his true lover but to trap him to his death.
That the character Mrs. Mai actually enjoyed the sex earned the ire of an woman who claimed that the character was based on her sister.
The media has revealed that Zheng Pingru, a Kuomintang intelligence agent during World War II, served as the archetype of Lust, Caution…
Zheng Jingzhi… Zheng Pingru’s youngest sister… stated that the film diverts too far from the actual life of Zheng Pingru, her second elder sister…
She said that she could understand how art exaggerates and distorts real life according to the artist’s imagination, but she couldn’t accept the fact that film viewers would relate to her sister as a heroine who indulged in lustful acts. She stated that such a portrayal was disrespectful to a person who had sacrificed her life for her country. [Source]
Zheng Jingzhi’s objections might have fueled the controversy over the sex scenes even more which led to the categorization of the film as an erotic thriller rather than a war or spy drama. For that is what the story is about — people caught in a war not of their making and doing their best to survive it. For Wang Jiazhi, Kuang Yumin and the others in the resistance movement, killing someone who has sold out on their country and people was their way of showing their loyalty to their country. For Mr. Yee and the other collaborators, it was either adapt or perish. These two extreme philosophies — and every other intention and emotion in between — and how they drove the actions of every character are what form the core of Lust, Caution.