Lust, Caution received an NC-17 rating for its graphic depictions of sex. Here we analyze the narrative importance of the film’s sexually explicit scenes.
Lust, Caution is the title of Ang Lee’s 2007 Chinese espionage film, but it might as well be the motto of the Motion Picture Association of America. The MPAA has a history of letting films with graphic depictions of violence get away with an R rating, while maintaining stricter guidelines for films featuring sexually explicit scenes. For instance, just look at Saving Private Ryan’s scarily realistic depictions of the Doomsday landings on Omaha beach during World War II, The Revenant’s bear mauling scene, Tarantino’s entire body of work… All these films were rated R, regardless of their disturbing nature. Yet, Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine (2010), which followed the story of a marriage falling apart, was initially rated NC-17—all because of a scene in which a male character goes down on his wife. Though an R versus an NC-17 rating may not seem like a big deal, it does affect the commercial viability of the film. NC-17 films are usually not released on as wide a scale as those that are R-rated, and thus have less of an opportunity to garner a profit. Because of this, many filmmakers try to edit their film’s explicit scenes in a manner that will allow the film to be rated R.
However, some directors defy the pressure to cut graphic content. Ang Lee is one such director, being anything but cautious in his direction of Lust, Caution. This film, based off a novella of the same name by Chinese author Eileen Chang, is set during the Japanese occupation of China during the late 1930’s and early 40’s. It tells the story of university student Wong Chia Chi who becomes part of a patriotic drama troupe performing pieces to encourage Chinese nationalism. Unsatisfied with being limited to the stage, the troupe decides to pull off a radical act: assassinating Mr. Yee, a powerful special agent and Japanese collaborator. Being the most gifted actress of the group, Chia Chi is given the task of seducing Mr. Yee and setting him up to be killed.
After the film was completed, it sparked controversy when Lee rejected the idea of editing the film’s multiple explicit sex scenes to make it R-rated. The graphic depictions of sex, he argued, were essential to the story. His decision not to yield to this pressure earned him both a Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and a Golden Lion award at the Venice International Film Festival. However, Lee did end up cutting out around seven minutes of footage out for the Chinese release of the film. In addition to editing down the sex scenes, he also cut some of the violence, and even changed Chia Chi’s dialogue in a crucial moment near the film’s end. Presumably Lee did this because the film would not have been shown in China otherwise. Thus, the Chinese version of Lust, Caution is not the same film that was released in the U.S. Yet, even if Lee had left the violence and dialogue untouched, Lust, Caution sans the sex scenes would be a different story.
During the course of the film, the dialogue is minimal. Very rarely do the characters say what they’re feeling. Instead, Ang Lee uses sex as a means of illustrating character development. The sex scenes work silently but powerfully to convey shifts in the main characters’ feelings for one another.
The first sex scene of the film is the least graphic. It depicts Wong Chia Chi having sex for the first time in order to keep up the guise of a married woman on her mission to seduce Mr. Yee. The most sexually experienced of the drama troupe is appointed to show Chia Chi the ropes. It is an uncomfortable experience, completely lacking in chemistry or intimacy between Chia Chi and her colleague. Shortly after, Mr. Yee moves to Shanghai and Chia Chi loses the opportunity to seduce him, making Chia Chi’s situation all the more poignant. Not only did she spend her first time having sex with someone she wasn’t attracted to, but it was also seemingly for naught.
The second sex scene takes place years later when Chia Chi is recruited by the Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese Nationalist Party, to resume her role in attempting to assassinate Mr. Yee. Shortly after reconnecting with Yee, Chia Chi finally succeeds in her mission of seducing Mr. Yee. However, the cost of her success is steep. Her first sexual encounter with Mr. Yee is not consensual. The atmosphere is gloomy: it’s raining outside and the scene has a blue tint to it. Chia Chi lacks any control when Mr. Yee takes her roughly from behind and begins ripping off her clothes. Chia Chi protests, but Yee continues, taking his belt off, hitting her before using it to restrain her hands. This act peels back a layer of this enigmatic man to reveal someone with a great capacity for cruelty. As Roger Ebert says in his review of the film, “We do not see Mr. Yee at work, torturing his countrymen, but [the actor portraying Yee] is able to project the man’s capability for menace and begins to do that in bed with her”. At one point, Chia Chi turns around to look at him in the middle of the act and Yee, seemingly caught off-guard, roughly shoves her face back into the bed. Afterwards, Chia Chi lays alone in bed, a dull look in her eye, seemingly drained from the experience. However, just before the scene ends, her lips turn upward in a slight smile, and we know she is proud of her accomplishment.
The next time Chia Chi has sex with Mr. Yee, the experience is much different. In contrast to the blue hue of the previous sex scene, this scene is predominately orange. The warmer lighting is indicative of the feelings of the characters. During Yee’s first time having sex with Chia Chi, he seemed almost angry that he was attracted to her, upset that he was letting his guard down to be with a woman whom he didn’t feel completely in control around. Perhaps that was why he was so aggressive in bed, dominating over her to assert his power, trying to compensate for his self-perceived vulnerability. Yet, here Chia Chi is an active participant in the sex. Though Yee is hardly gentle, his roughness has subsided to some extent. He does not force her head away when she looks at him, instead returning her gaze. This maintained eye-contact, combined with their positions—facing each other, rather him taking her from behind—creates a sense of tenderness among their passion. In addition to the looks shared between Chia Chi and Yee, the most powerful visual is the wideshot of them on the bed together. Chia Chi and Yee’s limbs entangle together in such a way that it is difficult to discern where one begins and the other ends. However, at the end of the scene, Chia Chi tells Yee he should “get her an apartment,” and we know that even in the midst of giving herself to him, she is still focused on the mission.
The fourth and final sex scene is the tipping point for their relationship. For the first time, we see Yee completely succumb to Chia Chi’s control. In contrast to previous scenes, Chia Chi is the one on top. At one point, she even grabs the pillow and covers the top half of his face with it—only inches away from suffocating him. This shot, more than any other, illustrates how she feels about him. Her anger is not about the injustice he’s caused for the Chinese; she’s mad that he’s forced her to have real feelings for him. For a moment, it’s unclear whether or not Chia Chi is going to kill him right then and there; the look of hatred in her eyes tells us she’s capable of it. However, she relents and removes the pillow—a moment that foreshadows her decision at the end of the film. Later, when the KMT agent in charge of Chia Chi’s mission tells her to “keep him ensnared in her trap,” she says:
“What trap? My body? He knows better than you how to put on an act. He not only gets inside me, he worms his way into my heart like a snake. Deeper. I take him in all the way like a slave. I play my part faithfully so I too can get to his heart. Every time he hurts me until I bleed and scream. Then he is satisfied. Then he feels alive. In the dark, only he knows it’s all real.”
This monologue voices what the sex scenes have made evident: a part of Chia Chi is in love with Mr. Yee. The only reason she has come this far seducing him is because her feelings for Yee are genuine.
As should be evidenced in this analysis, the sex scenes in Lust, Caution not only enhance the narrative; they are necessary to it. The first sex scene is essential because it shows Chia Chi’s loss of innocence—not necessarily because she’s having sex, but because she puts her entire self into her mission and it (initially) ends up being for naught. Similarly, each time Chia Chi and Yee have sex in the film; it indicates a change in their feelings for one another, and thus a turning point in their relationship. Their three sex scenes depict the slow transition of Yee allowing himself to be vulnerable in Chia Chi’s presence and her struggle to not lose herself completely in their affair. Though perhaps the scenes could have been trimmed to show less explicit content, they could not have been edited in a way that would have made the film rated R without losing valuable narrative depth.
Lust, Caution is available for rent in the Facets Vidéothèque.
Author : Emily Graves is a senior at Columbia College Chicago, where she is studying Writing for Film and Television. She is particularly fascinated by French films, LGBTQ+ representation, and anything by the director Ang Lee. This summer she is Facet’s Media Archivist Assistant.