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Film Review: Lust, Caution for Real? Print E-mail

Real Sex or Reel Tease?

Reel or Real?So let's cut to the chase.... The primary question in Lust, Caution (Se, jie) is: “What is real?” The answers, nebulous and harsh, are suffused with cigarette smoke and punctuated by clacking mahjong tiles. A WWII melodrama set mostly in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, Ang Lee’s film follows two lovers caught between the titular modes of feeling, pursuing and resisting one another, discovering and losing themselves.

But is it real? Rhetorics and beating-around-the-bush aside, we all want to know. 

The intensely graphic sex scenes in Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution" have reduced most discussion of the film among critics to the single question: "So, is all that ... you know ... real?"  Of course Lee would never admit anything, leaving the world to judge for itself whether the feverish and intensely erotic couplings of co-stars Tony Leung and Tang Wei are the "real thing." And yet (as Lee will surely know), just the suggestion of actual sex is enough to pique the world's interest, and for the film to take its place alongside those other titles alleged to have gone that extra few inches in the name of realism.

In an interview with Erica Abeel of IndieWIRE last year, Ang was both vague and revealing about these incredible sex scenes that shocked and challenged the cinematic world.Here is an excerpt of that interview:

You really push the envelope in the way you shot the sex scenes. I've never seen anything quite like them.

Me neither. It was new for me. To me it's the ultimate acting challenge. In a way, that's what the movie is about. So I shot those scenes in a row over 12 days, earlier than in the shooting schedule.

ImageWhy shoot those scenes first?

I needed to see how it landed, because it's not scripted. After that I had an idea of the rest of the movie. All three scenes are at different levels and she has to withstand his scrutiny as an interrogator, without him learning the truth.

How did you film them?

First I did the blocking, and then once I decided that, I called in the actors, and everyone goes out of the studio except me, the camera man, and the boom operator.

Wasn't it mortifying and embarrassing to work on those scenes?

Of course. None of us enjoy it. By nature it's very uncomfortable and draining and painful. I call it ultimate acting. But we used the pain. We enjoyed the pain.

Roseann Ng [First A.D.] remarked that even Tony Leung, the seasoned actor who has been through it all, was close to collapse when he finished shooting the sex scenes.

My actors and I don't make a pornographic film every day. I had to expose my desires, talk to the actors about it, talk them through it. We're just common people. It felt pretty harsh.

Was the love-making simulated?

I leave that to you to decide. See the movie.

I have seen the movie [twice]. Why are you coy about answering that question?

We got something great in the performance. Let's leave the actors some room. We gave it our best shot for the ultimate performance. It was a challenge cinematically, partly because they had to deny this chemistry... We decided we had to go all the way in performing. But I won't kill somebody for real. Someone has to draw the line.

Lust & CautionLust, Caution has garnered attention for its explicit sex scenes. Several are not only graphic, but also violent, illustrating a powerful man's cruelty and confusion as well as determined woman’s need to feel intimate with him, even at the cost of her well-being. But these scenes also serve a thematic purpose, in the questions they raise about what’s “real” in sex performed for films that are not designated “pornography.” At the same time, the sex scenes provide moments of sincere connection for the characters: they see one another as “real” when they engage in sweaty, acrobatic acts, taking emotional risks they don’t take at any other time. Vulnerable and aggressive, their closeness in these moments is unsafe but also, for them, the most safe they feel. ("What if I told you I hated you?” she asks as they begin one assignation. “I believe you,” he says.)

In these scenes, the sex is a plot, not just a break for lush scoring and pretty bodies on display, as it is in most movies. This plot, so urgent and pained, dooms both partners. The graphic portrayals then become harshly necessary, as it establishes the unbridled emotions that form each character, to plunge the audience into the complex and complicated psychological drama that makes this film so disturbing that it leaves you thinking about it long after the end credits have rolled.


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