As a public service, this blog would like to issue a warning to anyone that under the impression that Se, jie (Lust, Caution) is an NC-17 erotic thriller. Judging from the marketing campaign alone, one might understandably imagine that the latest film from the director of Sense & Sensibility and Eat Drink Man Woman would be a sexy drama suitable for viewing with a significant other, but be warned that most of it is quite far from titillating. In fact, the first of three sex scenes can only be classified as a rape (albeit one complicated by the characters’ complex relationship).
Se, jie is set in 1942 Japanese-occupied Shanghai, with flashbacks to the few years preceding. A naive but sincerely dedicated bunch of Chinese student activists form a terrorist cell, with the aim to assassinate collaborator Mr. Yee (Tony Leung). Theater student Wong Chia Chi (Wei Tang) discovers she is a natural actress and gifted improviser, which unfortunately also makes her a superbly qualified as a undercover spy.
To fully inhabit her cover story as a married woman, she must first lose her virginity. This happens almost simultaneously with her cell losing their metaphorical virginity as they messily execute their first righteous assassination. As Paul Newman discovers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain, murder is hard work, and takes time.
Se, jie was released in the same year as Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book and concerns many of the same themes: wartime occupation, violent resistance, and the use of sex as undercover ingratiation. But while Verhoeven couldn’t resist front-loading his film with plenty of cheesecake, Ang Lee and James Schamus take the high road and don’t pretend that the morally empty Mr. Yee isn’t violently twisted, and that Wong Chia Chi doesn’t absolutely suffer for her cause.