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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Love in a Fallen City
by Donald Levit

Regardless of a Venetian best picture Golden Lion, many media roundtable questions following the New York press screening of Lust, Caution leered in on two ultra-steamy sex scenes. Slimmer, younger and prettier in person with her hair down and not in 1940s makeup and cheongsam dress, Tang Wei graciously fielded such unnecessary queries -- the eleven days for those particular shoots were so tiring that the two actors worked only half as long as usual -- and, not really in need of her translator, summarized with a quotation from the Eileen Chang [Chan Ailing] short story now brought to the screen: “when she’s alive her body is his; when she’s dead her soul is his.”

Of this, her feature début after experience in telefilm and on stage as actress, writer and director, the young lady from mainland China pointed out her screen character’s hiding behind the rôle she plays within the story, wanting love but unable to distinguish her real self from the fictional one she assumes. This misplacing of self or its merging into an imaginary personality may not be picked up by many viewers.

One female viewer ventured that this heroine acts as she finally does because, denied the true man of her heart, she perversely transfers her physicality and then loyalty to the least likely male, precisely the one to ruin them all. Actually, motivation here is too fuzzy to say, closer to what co-screenwriter James Schamus elsewhere writes of as befitting “a woman caught up in a game of cinematic and literary mirrors.”

Noting at the same roundtable that Brokeback Mountain also derives from a short story, Taiwanese now Westchester County-based director/co-producer Ang Lee revealed that his newcomer leading lady Wei had been selected from among thousands because of “a disposition that reminds me of my parents’ generation [and that] I see her as a female me, she is a kind of me. An abstract feeling.”

From his male viewpoint, in equal measures clarifying and confusing the actress’ take, he added that “we never know what women get from sex, even in literature here,” but that reclusive and pessimistic authoress Chang was delving into female psychology with a backdrop of wartime Japan-occupied China. His own wide range of genres and subjects, after all, ultimately depends on the “common strain of human relationships, [in this case] one man-one woman.”

There are autobiographical springs from Chang’s unhappy childhood, her parents’ non-relationship, and her own first marriage to a collaborator -- she remarried during a permanent exile of forty years in California -- and story and film are indeed less about political events than about gender tensions.

Comparison will inevitably be drawn with Black Book, also about a woman -- a singer, rather than an amateur actress -- whose entrapment of her overrun nation’s enemy is colored by emotional involvement. Whereas Verhoeven’s promising premise deteriorates into spy-action cliché, the better, less conventional Lust, Caution remains true to its inner ambiguity but falls victim to that very lack of certitude. In its defense, however, on top of the resistance-fighter adopted rôles, there is difficulty with names, transliterated and varying according to the dialects and accents made much of in the dialogue, even necessitating a glossary in a just re-issued volume of the story.

The height of 1942 elegance, Wei’s Mak Tai Tai [wife of Mak] enters a largely Caucasian Shanghai café, makes a coded telephone call and opens the 1938 backstory that will come around to this framing present. In the Hong Kong of that earlier date, she was student Wong Chia Chi, the most naïve and casual recruit of five in handsome Kuang Yu Min’s (Wang Leehom, the Asian pop music star) university theater group. Dismissing Ibsen’s “bourgeois” A Doll’s House in favor of relevant patriotism, they stir up anti-Japanese fervor and, from there, elaborate a plot to assassinate the guarded head of collaborationist intelligence, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, whom Lee called “the Cary Grant of Asia,” in a rare turn as a heavy). The virginal girl is first awkwardly initiated into lovemaking, then dolled up as Mrs. Mak and introduced into Yee’s wife’s (Joan Chen) catty mah-jongg circle to seduce the husband into dropping his guard on the way to what he is to see as a tasty liaison.

The students’ unaided plan comes to bloody naught in the wake of the Yees’ abrupt departure north. Distraught Wong/Mak Tai Tai flees, only to be enlisted again in Shanghai and brought to Old Wu (Tou Chung Hua), a Nationalist Chungking-related underground organizer who suppresses all feeling except devotion to the cause. Once again her Mrs. Mak enters the Yees’ lives, but this time the woman and the interrogator-torturer are not interrupted. Physically and emotional torn and bleeding, she begs to be excused from the mission, but China at war requires that every woman and man play her or his part in sacrifice to duty.

Setting and wardrobe are relatively simple but immaculate, and combat itself distant. Mak Tai Tai/Wong Chia Chi is left -- the actress is constantly on screen -- but with no confidante to whom to turn, her churning motives are not easily if at all revealed. Less complication and length would have benefited the film, but, then, perhaps the (female) heart is unknowable.  

(Released by Focus Features and rated “NC-17” for some explicit sexuality.)

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