You’ll understand why I put Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution onto my very short list of Rainy Days Films — those films one saves up, like that chocolate bar your friend brought back from Belgium, for a day when you have a need for something exceptionally luscious. This film is a period drama lover’s delight: sensuous with 1940s textures and fabrics and chinas, rippled with sunlight and neons and 1940s incandescents. It is also almost pornographically sexy (it was even cut for many audiences, and released in the US with a NC-17 rating).

What I didn’t expect was that Tang Wei to blow my frontal lobe in the role of Wong Chia Chi, a Hong Kong university student and accidental actress who, with her fellow actors, forms a renegade unit to resist the wartime Japanese occupation of China. She’s fabulous.

In the earliest part of the film (set in 1938), we see most clearly how young and naïve she is — and I mean, like, teenager young. She’s shy and a bit wowed by her older friend’s cohort of student actors, especially the one really good-looking boy. Even when she gets recruited into their patriotic play, we’re not sure whether such a young thing will make it onstage. But something happens in that concluding moment in their play, as Chia Chi’s real emotions intersect with those of her character, and a real tear slips down her cheek. Even her co-star in the scene seems thrown by her talent. It’s as if we see an entirely new person — acting has released in Chia Chi a talent for doubled selfhood and performance that seems preternatural.

Thus, when they cook up a plan to act as a resistance group to combat Japanese presence in China, Chia Chi is their star. She masquerades as a wealthy importer’s wife in order to infiltrate the social circle and mahjong club of Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen), the wife of collaborationist Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai). Chia Chi spends her days advising the ladies on finding tailors and decent restaurants, appearing far more cosmopolitan and far older than her true age, and — trickiest of all — chit-chatting expertly with wealthy wives whose radar is acute. She waits for an opportunity to flirt prettily with the elusive Yee, who appears only occasionally in his wife’s parlor.

In every way — her expressions, her physical gestures, her face, it’s like Chia Chi is a different woman. She shows no hesitation in her acting skills — even a certain impetuousness.

Yee, meanwhile, is a cypher. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is always so good — that tragic face, that slightly beaten-down appearance, those eyes that bespeak yearning and self-defeat (see especially his Happy Together [1997] and the luminescent In the Mood for Love [2000]); here his character is particularly hard and inscrutable. Chia Chi often feels like she’s wasting time; she’s certainly wasting all her friends’ money while she loses at mahjong to Yee’s wife. But eventually he notices her, finds small ways to get closer to her.

Her radical friends congratulate her for her accomplishment. Then they remind her that she doesn’t know the first thing about sex; in fact, only one of them does, and that’s because he has a weakness for prostitutes. Thus begins the least sexy deflowering and “sex education” in the history of film, all done in the name of a free China. But the Yees leave Hong Kong before she gets her chance to seduce him. Their assassination plans foiled, Chia Chi and her friends have a particularly bad night before they break apart and don’t see each other again.

Three years later, Chia Chi is staying with an aunt in Shanghai, poor and going through the motions of her studies. Like other Chinese, she’s learning Japanese to adjust to the Occupation. She looks like a shadow of her former self, and we’re not sure why — is it a lingering sense of degradation after losing her virginity for no reason? the long effects of poverty and Japanese occupation? simple loneliness and isolation? We’ve never seen her before with such an expression of defeat, and it’s dark.

Then her old friends rediscover her and recruit her back to the same mission, except this time they’re working with the real Resistance, and they’re organized. They want her to pick up where she left off, and she does — seating herself back at Mrs. Yee’s mahjong table, catching Yee’s eye. But there’s something different this time, something we feel so acutely but can’t put our fingers on. There’s something darker. 1942 is a very different world than 1938, for both of them. They are different people.

How does she do it, with that round face and precious lips? How does she capture the stresses of living this double life so beautifully and seamlessly? Tang Wei is always on point, always watchable, yet is asked to encompass so many conflicting emotions at once that her performance is a small miracle. It’s as if her character is most real when she must pretend to be someone she’s not.

Then add sex and stir. Her emotions become all the more convoluted when Yee finds ways to sleep with her — at first in the most brutal, sadistic manner, akin to how he tortures members of the Resistance; and gradually in ways that express a shared passion that captures all they are still hiding from one another, all they despise about themselves.

This is not romance, although sometimes they pretend it is. This is smut, dirty and fiery and beyond all reason. It’s fantastic, and it destroys their souls. I’m sure someone out there will argue that Chia Chi “falls in love” with Yee, but I will argue most fervently that this is not any kind of recognizable love. This is urgent and awful and demoralizing, and it erases traces of the self you thought you were. It’s fantastic to watch — again, this is really goddamn close to pornography — but grueling to identify with. Chia Chi and Yee can only experience this kind of sex because of the horrible things they’ve done in their other lives, the kinds of people they’ve sunk to being. The sex is so intense because they recognize the dark in each other. 

And still they pretend. Yee invites her to a Japanese tea house where the veneer of Japanese politeness is thin but insistent. As a small protest against its Japaneseness, Chia Chi sings a romantic Chinese song and dances alluringly for Yee in the weird privacy of a room with paper walls. The sense of defeat is everywhere. But they pretend it’s not, and they pretend they feel love for one another. It breaks your heart — not because of a tragic love, but because each of these people is splitting apart in their souls.

Tang Wei. Keep your eyes open for her — I can only hope she gets more roles of such range and depth. I bow down before her skill.

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It was Spanish Professor who sparked my yearning to see this film again. It begins with that lamp — one of those old motion lamps from the 1950s that use a rotating screen inside to simulate waterfalls flowing. It’s like the sirens’ song of myth, this lamp: it shows a view of Argentina’s famous Iguazú Falls, and I can assure you that you’ll be called by it as well:

Like the sirens, the lamp calls Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) and Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) fatefully from Hong Kong in search of the falls, and further onto the rocks of relationship misery. Don’t see this film because you want to see romance: Po and Fai are most certainly not happy together, at least not most of the time — but you’ll recognize on a gut level the dynamics of their passions for one another. Po is the flakiest of all boyfriends, with a disastrous penchant for picking up men in public restrooms; their home life in that sad little apartment can be miserable. But oh! Director Wong has the most beautiful eye, and the most vivid use of color — which you’ll remember, perhaps, from his In the Mood for Love (2000, which you should see if you want romance). Just look at how Wong puts vivid color and Fai’s emotion at the front of a scene, with all manner of light and wallpaper and tilework illuminating the backdrop:

Or the way an enormous blue sky can illuminate their growing disappointments with one another:

Or the way a glance through a brilliantly-painted bar’s window allows us to see the self-destructive Po doing more of what he’s good at:
And, most heartbreakingly of all, Fai sitting with a tape recorder, trying to record something that his new friend Chang (Chen Chang) promises will release him from his sadness:
Wong, come back! It’s been four years since you directed My Blueberry Nights, and watching Happy Together again has evoked such a longing in me for your images saturated with color, the way those interiors and lampshades and wallpapers evoke such passion and visions of tragic love. As a master of set design and color cinematography, Wong is unmatched. And I would suggest that my claim that Happy Together is the most beautiful film ever can be challenged, the only contender is In the Mood for Love — and that’s due to those amazing cheongsams that Maggie Cheung dons in every scene — seemingly a different dress each time:
Gorgeous. Wong Kar-Wai: come back to us.