Monday, December 17, 2007


Having taken a long time to get around to seeing Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (Se, Jie), and admiring some things about it, and wishing to acknowledge that it is not nearly as shocking as Zhang Yimou’s totalitarian Hero . . . nonetheless, the film is “post-totalitarian” in its affinities, for better and worse. Its legend is “We were so naïve.” This line is spoken by the heroine, Wang Jiazhi (Tang Wei) in reference to her participation in a student group of freelance “resistance” fighters. But the phrase belongs paradigmatically to the post-Tiananmen era (even though Ang Lee is from Taiwan: the film is about Chinese history, and the sentiment about the supposed naivete of Tiananmen has been repeated globally). She means that it was innocent for the group to have imagined that, as underfunded amateurs, they could succeed in assassinating Yee, a high official of the occupation government (Tony Leung). As she utters the phrase, she is being recruited back to action by a colleague and possible love interest from the former group, who tells her that three years before, they “were being watched” by a more established terrorist unit for which he now works: would she like another try at the assassination? This second attempt is even more “naïve” than the first, as it turns out that (being a more professional group, more susceptible to notice) they, too are being monitored, this time by the occupation government itself, and have little chance to accomplish their goal. The impression of globalized defeatism is supported by the casting of Tony Leung as Yee, since Leung, a citizen of Hong Kong, "enraged the human rights and pro-democracy camps by saying that it was right for the Mainland government to end pro-democracy protests with the June 4 crackdown" in the interest of stability ("Tony Leung Chiu-Wai claims he was misquoted regarding Tiananmen," Hong Kong Entertainment News in Review, December 19, 2002). Yet what’s not naïve, according to the film, is Wang's existentialist gesture, in the last minutes, of throwing her life away to protect the skin of the fascist Yee, who for the middle forty minutes has devoted himself to impressive sex with her. Given this, what does it mean that Reuters/Yahoo! News can locate the film’s “controversy” in the fact that “some [decry] it for being too long” while “others [are] critical of its graphic sex scenes”? Lee’s logic, and Reuters’, seems to be: you’re going to end up in the quarry anyway, so there’s more point to sacrificing yourself on the altar of good sex than of any political hope. Post-Tiananmen, we’re no longer naïve. We’re “post-totalitarian,” sophisticated enough to understand this. And to prove it, we are happy to show you Tony Leung’s testicles: that’s how sophisticated we are.

Image: from Xu Bing, Tobacco Project, 2000. For updates on the aftermath of June 4, see


Jordan said...

These posts are the highlights of my week.

By pleasant coincidence, I'm reading Lisa Rofel's Desiring China, which resonates pleasantly, productively with your reading of this film (which, I swear, Leo Bersani might have ghostwritten. Am I the only one who thought that?)

RT said...

I would embrace LB as an alter ego . . . .