Sex and Censorship: Ang Lee’s ‘Lust, Caution’

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Ang Lee is arguably speaking the most famous and successful Asian director in the world. From the Father Knows Best trilogy (1992-94), which focuses on cultural clashes between traditional Chinese society and Western ideals, to the unforgettable visual spectacle Life of Pi (2012), the Taiwanese director has never failed to amaze his audiences.

His latest movie, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, introduced the use of revolutionary 120-frames-per-second frame rate, leading to polarized reviews from critics after its premier half a month ago. One may be surprised by Lee’s insistence on exploring the new technology even though its effects can only be shown to the audience fully in five cinemas around the world.

Having won the top prizes in Berlin and Venice twice respectively, as well as being the two-time winner of Academy Award Best Director, this certainly isn’t the first time the 62-year-old director has challenged conventions in filmmaking. Looking back at his filmography, Lee is radical not only with his exploration of technology, but also with his choice of controversial themes and time periods for his movies. Lust, Caution (2007), the last Chinese film Lee directed to date, deals with historical, cultural and moral issues which caused uproar among Chinese audience for its “political incorrectness”.

Most audiences in English-speaking areas are probably not familiar with Lust, Caution, an erotic spy thriller set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in the 40s. Adapted from Eileen Chang’s novella, it features the forbidden sexual attraction between student-turned-spy Wong Chia Chi and Mr Yi, a high-ranking official in the pro-Japanese KMT fraction led by hanjian (traitor to the Chinese race) Wang Jinwei.

For Western audience, the plot seems quite straightforward as it simply illustrates the failure of an assassination plot led by hot-blooded youths, as well as the tragedy of the young heroine’s ill-fated romance. However, for Chinese audiences and those familiar with the movie’s sociopolitical background, Lust, Caution touches on some of the most explosive issues of Chinese culture and history, and it certainly didn’t help that Ang Lee made a major addition by adding three explicit sexual scenes to the movie that don’t feature in the original text.

The topic of sex has always been a taboo in traditional Asian culture. Actresses who took part in nude scenes are often stereotyped as porn stars for their entire career, even if a few managed to achieve recognition by transiting into mainstream cinema. Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s muse Shu Qi is a typical victim of such discrimination, and Lust, Caution’s leading lady Tang Wei is certainly no exception.

In Mainland China though, Lust, Caution is particularly controversial for another reason: its defiant attitude to the political censorship in the Chinese film industry. For example, in a movie set during Japanese-occupation period, it is forbidden to portray a Chinese spy (especially one belonging to the Communist party) using sexual favours while conducting espionage activities. Moreover, the antagonist (Japanese officials) must not be portrayed from a sympathetic view.

Most importantly, the movie must end on a positive note suggesting the ultimate victory of Chinese Communists (characters belonging to the KMT must either be sacrificed or converted). The Message, a 2009 espionage thriller starring Zhou Xun and Li Bingbing set in a similar time period, deliberately changes the original ending of the source text from co-operation between the two parties to both heroines belonging to the Communist Party.

It’s not hard, therefore, to understand why it could be said that Ang Lee was deliberately playing with fire as he filmed Lust, Caution, which touches a nerve for the Communist Government with its message of individual rebellion set against the backdrop of extreme nationalism in wartime. It is not the first time in Chinese art house cinema that sex is used as a means to convey certain political messages either, with notable examples such as Lou Ye’s Summer Palace (set in the backdrop of 1989 Tiananmen Protests) and Joan Chen’s Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl (set during the Cultural Revolution in 1970s). These films were all censored and banned in Mainland China, with the directors banned from filmmaking for several years.

Despite all the controversy it caused, Lust, Caution remains a classic among cinephiles as well as one of my personal favourites, and as Joyce Carol Oates once said, “art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions”, even if our sympathies are in “directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish.”

Photograph: petcor80 (via Flickr)

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