Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Sleeping with the enemy
Ang Lee's award-winning, very expensive and very-long Lust, Caution (158 minutes) reminded me very much of Paul Verhoeven's award-winning, very expensive and very-long Black Book(145 minutes). Both films are historical dramas that take place against the backdrop of war, involving political intrigue, espionage, deception and a lot of violence, torture and sex. Lee's film is set in World War II Shanghai during Japanese occupation while Verhoeven's is set in World War II Holland during the German occupation. "Lust, Caution" is about a young Chinese woman, played by the beautiful and very talented Tang Wei who is a member of an anti-Japanese underground and whose task is to seduce a member of the Japanese collaborationist government, played by the great actor, Tony Leung as part of a scheme to assassinate him while "The Black Book" is about a Dutch-Jewish woman played by Carice van Houten who is a member of an anti-German underground and whose task is to seduce a German officer, played by by the great actor, Sebastian Koch as part of a scheme to kill a Dutch Nazi collaborator. In both films the plans go awry as the two female agents fall in love with their respective targets and in the process have a lot of raw and passionate sex with them. I had seen "Black Book" which did so-so in the U.S. last year and liked it a lot. And I had seen "Lust, Caution" which is doing so-so with American audiences two weeks ago and loved it. "Black Book" is more "conventional" as far as Western audiences are concerned, since it has all the ingredients (Occupied Europe; Nazis; the Holocaust) that we are familiar with in WWII movies, and its heroine is like the anti-Ann Frank, in a sense that she is a young Jewish woman. who not only survives the war but also fights the Germans -- and wins (the film which is loosely based on true story ends with her immigrating to Israel and living in a Kibbutz). We (meaning members of Western audiences) might not be able to empathize with the characters in Lee's movie which is about what Asians refer to as the "Pacific War" and where there are only a few Europeans (including in Hollywood films that the heroine watches). "Black Book" is also more of a convectional thriller in which the Good Guys do win. in "Lust, Caution," the plot takes surprising turns. But the central motif in the two films is quite similar: The power of human relationships, and in particular, love, trumps over "international relations." I read Norman Davies' revisionist history of WWII No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945 after watching "Lust,Caution" and Davis makes this interesting point: "...someday, somehow, the present fact of American supremacy will be challenged, and with it the American interpretation of history. All the perspective challengers have their own take on the Second World War. The Chinese, for example, remember the war years as period of immense suffering inflicted by imperial Japan and a necessary perlude to the Chinese Revolution. In a sinocentric world one could expect the importance of Europe and of Europe's suffering to be downgraded; the victories of Russians and Americans would be pushed to the margins; the Japanese militarists, not the Nazis, would represent the prime force of Evil; the 'memory spot' par excellence might be the city of Nanking; and the screen epic of the mid-twenty-century (if screens still exist) might show some unknown Chinese private being rescued on some as yet unremembered beach." Well, we might not have to wait for "Saving Private Lee." "Lust, Caution" fits the bill of a sinocentric screen epic.