Reel Geezers on Lust, Caution

10 Jan 2008

Word on the street is that the unedited version of Lust, Caution has already circulated pretty widely. My wife picked up a good copy a while back. I’m planning to watch it soon, partly to see what the fuss is about, and partly because of the ridiculous claim that I keep hearing from the Chinese: “foreigners can’t understand it.” (I actually probably won’t understand it–this isn’t the kind of film I’m into–but it’s still a ridiculous claim.)

Anyway, this is all just an excuse to make a post featuring “Reel Geezers,” the “dynamic octogenarian duo.” Their reviews are hilarious. Watch!

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Foreigers won’t understand it? Why the hell not? It’s a decent movie by all standards, intense sex scenes, good story, multi-dimensional acting. Bit long, but absolutely worthwile.

    But nothing out of the ordinary; at least not by Western standards. Sounds more like a case of “Chinese aren’t used to it” than “foreigners can’t understand it”. Or Chinese people can’t for the life imagine that also other countries were occupied by outside forces and had to go through some difficult times during that. Beats me..

  2. BEn,

    Yeah, I’m not sure exactly, either. Something about the subtleties of the relationships, or the subtleties of mahjong playing?? Whatever the reason, I don’t buy it either.

  3. King of Men Says: January 10, 2008 at 11:00 am

    “Won’t understand it.” Lol! Racism/Xenophobia can be funny sometimes.

    Most of Lee Ang’s films are written by a white, blue blood American named James Schamus. Clearly, the bigoted Chinese who would claim round eyes “wont’ understand it,” clearly don’t read credits.

    The sex scenes were tame. Bertolucci did it better with LAST TANGO and Catherine Breillat pushed the mainstream envelope to real deal bumpin’ uglies in ROMANCE, back in 1999. The Mak bros. in Hong Kong did one better with SEX & ZEN in Hong Kong in the early nineties.

    Of course, given the conservative nature of many Chinese, I suspect they “won’t understand” the hardcore works of Stephen Sayadian, Radley Metzger, Gregory Dark or Alex De Renzy…

    Sayadian was the F. W. Murnau of hardcore, Dark was the Alex Cox of hardcore with his punk-politico satire (especially his stabs at the DEVIL IN MISS JONES series), and Metzger and De Renzy are worth Googling for serious articles examining their works.

    Of course, I’d gamble that the same people claiming round eyes “won’t understand” LUST, CAUTION wouldn’t “understand” the works of those filmmakers. Call it a hunch.

  4. I wonder if these people you’re running into mean foreigners are incapable of understanding it, or unlikely to understand it. The first is silly, the second less so. Let’s face it, your average American or European filmgoer isn’t going to be too up on all the political history involved, whereas Mainlanders and Taiwanese will at least have some passing awareness. Even Ang Lee says in interviews that he thinks Americans aren’t so interested in Asian movies that don’t fit in a box, i.e. Crouching Tiger, and I think he’s half right. Thing is, he also put alot of effort into showing Shanghai’s foreign community in it too…

    For you, John, I’d imagine you’d wanna see it for all the dialects it supposedly features.

  5. Imagine a Chinese guy who was never exposed to American culture started to watch Field of Dreams or Slap Shot. Do you think he is going to get it? I remember when I moved to the states I couldn’t get citizen Kane or anything De Niro/Pacino are in. But years later I learn to love it.

  6. I do have to say I didn’t like this movie much, even though I kind of get it.

  7. I get it. This movie was released internationally. If they meant expats wouldn’t get it, they are very wrong. If, however, they just meant round eyes, then yeah, I agree. Most people don’t know jack about Chinese history and the movie assumes it’s audience have at a least a basic understanding of the time period.

  8. I think the geezers are right on.

  9. jw chen,

    you are so right. I showed my college students Field of Dreams. They didn’t get it. They kept saying, “Ghosts don’t live in cornfields.” After lengthy discussion, they accepted the father/son story, but they were adamant that ghosts coming out of corn fields to play baseball made no sense.

  10. that was… how do you say?… HILARIOUS
    the dynamic between lorenzo and marcia is at least as subtle and fascinating as that between Mr. Yi and his mistress.

    I’ll bet those two geezers still have great sex.

  11. I don’t think the movie required a person to be familiar with Chinese history. She’s with Le Resistance, trying to take out the bad guy – pretty simple really. Personally I’m going to be smug about my China knowledge over other causes.

  12. Perhaps I have to revert my statements made earlier. I only know watched the Geezers review, and I have to say, they really didn’t get it. Possibly they didn’t get precisely in the way Chinese people would predict foreigners not to get it.

    I’m not going to attempt to phrase it – particularly not in a Foreign Tongue – but it’s something about the ambiguity of the love affair. Yes, it’s rape at first, force and exploitation; but there’s a second, dark, sensual aspect of it that Lorenzo apparently entirely missed. Coming to think of it, the coexistence of both sides, which in the West is just not on the menu (in our world, rape and love don’t mix, period) probably is something very Asian.

    Thoughtful now..

  13. The dark, sensual aspect is really obvious and impossible to miss. They were somewhat put off by a movie depicting a rape/love relationship – that doesn’t demonstrate a misunderstanding of the movie, does it?

    Anyway it’s hardly an idea unique to Chinese movies/literature – “Blue Velvet” “Taming of the Shrew” “Oasis” and “Fat Girl” come to mind. And the screenplay was written by a Mr. James Schamus.

  14. I saw it. I understood it. And I thought it sucked.

  15. Id love to see it!!! alone…

  16. Oh wait, when I said, ‘I get it’, I meant that I understand why people have said ‘foreigners won’t get it’. Not the I ‘got’ the movie ‘got it’.
    Yes…that did sound smug. Oops…

  17. The movie’s story actually comes from nearly real story during japanese occupation. It also has a lot to do with the author of the book.

    Some of the nationalists may try to get Yi killed but some other nationalists may not. In the nationalist group, there are two strong spy organizations: One is called “Jun Tong” 军统 controlled by Dai li and the other is called “Zhong Tong” 中统 controlled by Chen Lifu. They work together sometimes but contradict each other the other times for the benefits.

    I believe Jun Tong’s spy want to kill Yi. However, Yi knows the japanese won’t last long. Before Yi works with japanese, he has a lot of comrades from nationalist side. So Yi may secretly work with Zhong Tong to sabotage some japanese plans, e.g. some gun shipment lost in the beginning of the movie. Actually Zhong Tong’s Chief Chen Lifu actually contacts Mr. Yi to work for the nationalists. So he is kind of like a double-agents.

    So is there a real Yi? Yes. However, his name is called Ding Mocun. For the author, she married a traitor and later get divorced. She loved the guy very much but did not get much in return. In the end, the guy fleed to japan after japan’s defeat.

    In addition, the girl in the movie depicts a Jun Tong’s female spy that also was executed after the failure of assassination.

    There are a lot of history involved and I only describe a little bit here. I think when Chinese people mean you won’t get it, he/she may mean you won’t get the full meanings/history behind the movie, not the rape/love stuff, since he, she or Ang Lee think most of foreigners won’t do such a tedious research about history of 65 years ago for a foreign movie.

  18. davesgonechina,

    I’m pretty sure what I heard was the view that foreigners are incapable of understanding the movie. So, yeah… ridiculous.

  19. I went to see this film on two different occasions with different Chinese women. After the end of the movie, both asked me the same question “Did you understand it ?”

    I finally figured out that they were not referring to the understanding of the “cultural dynamics” of the film but rather to the “relationship dynamics” and to the deeper symbolic significance of why the woman eventually fell in the love with the guy. I don’t believe they were assuming that this type of film plot was unique to Chinese culture.

  20. Actually, Ang Lee may be the first one indicating “Lust, Caution” is not made for western audience, aka. Hollywood. Then there comes those “foreigners won’t get it” comments.

    As a famous director, I think Ang Lee has his meanings of saying so. However, I don’t think he wants to create any controversy over it. His father went to Taiwan with the fleeing nationalists and his father generation suffers the difficulty of occupation and war with japan. His movie depicts a storyline from a famous chinese female author who was in love with a traitor who collaborated with the japanese.

    To take such a storyline from the author has already been a tremendous difficult task. Let alone tell the story which resembles some of the author’s almost bio.

    Think about it, how hard it would be to bring a traitor’s story or someone’s story whose life is involved with a traitor? How hard it will be for any US directors to bring a novel to the silver screen written by someone considered as traitor during civil war, world war 2 or other wars US has been involved?

    Ang Lee also faces great difficulty. The movie cannot be made for western world. For majority of the chinese world including those in US, Europe and etc, they do not have any good feelings towards those periods of japanese occupation, which is one of the darkest time of modern china.

    So it is not a simple story to tell and not a simple story to understand only from the movie alone.

  21. In addition, Ang Lee’s remarks about western audience are not interested in asian movies that do not fit in a box make sense as well. Until now, not that many western citizens know much about the NanJing (Nanking) massacre. Let alone those other criminal killings those japanese army soldiers have done in china and other occupied territory.

    Until now, quite some japanese including their senior officials say those history is fabricated without suffering high pressure from western world. An interested audience won’t let history to be distorted in this way. In another word, it also verify Ang Lee’s remarks as well.

  22. Yeah, I get a pretty knee-jerk 反感 reaction whenever I hear people say that foreigners are incapable of understanding something. In the case of this movie, though, while I’m pretty sure I ‘got’ the movie, I didn’t think it was all that great. Then again, I dislike Eileen Chang’s work pretty strongly, so perhaps I was just biased going into it.

    Regarding the history: one might as well reply that Chinese are incapable of understanding Pan’s Labyrinth.

  23. As to the Juntong/Zhongtong history, true enough, I didn’t know that, but I don’t feel that it made a difference for the movie. I also don’t think every Chinese and Taiwanese who saw Lust, Caution would know all this.

    As to the rape/love aspect, it seems to happen a lot in Chinese movies (it seems that whenever I watch the Chinese movie channels, at some point a woman is being raped), and I detest it and usually put it down to male chauvinism that it is put in movies.

  24. I think the word “incapable” had better be replaced with “unwilling” or “not interested” to reflect the real situation.

    In addition, I do not think that is really a rape/love aspect since Wang tried to seduce Yi at the first place.

    “one might as well reply that Chinese are incapable of understanding Pan’s Labyrinth”

    I think definitely there is some truth in your comment. I have read a lot of western literature. However, I am not that interested in “Pan’s Labyrinth” and not that interested in seeing that movie as well. So I think at first it is “not interested” in play, not “incapable”.

    I think actually it is “not interested” leads to “incapable”.

  25. On the contrary, I think quite a few chinese would “get” ‘the great expectation”, “war and peace” and even brave heart. So it all depends what type of movies or literature are involved….

  26. “In addition, I do not think that is really a rape/love aspect since Wang tried to seduce Yi at the first place.”
    That first sex scene between Wang and Yi is rape, sure enough. She knew pretty much what she was going to that hotel for, but that doesn’t change the fact that one can clearly see that he rapes her when she gets there.

  27. I’ve heard similar things from a number of colleagues, friends, and random Chinese folks here in Shanghai. Usually, it goes something like, “You just can’t understand this movie. You have to be Chinese.”

    Oh. Okay. So, what’s to understand exactly? That Chinese people are, by and large, sexually and emotionally repressed? That history is a bitch? That Ang Lee (among other east-Asian directors) is a formulaic sap? Well, I already know all this, dude.

    In general, this is what constitutes cinematic art for most people in the Eastern hemisphere: someone has deep feelings, someone suffers, someone dies, lots of injustice and futility, and all under a manipulative, lush soundtrack to move us along. Lust, Caution and Ang Lee in a nutshell, I’d have to say. But I digress.

    The real misunderstanding that’s taking place here is all about the acceptance (or lack thereof) of cultural difference. At least in the western world, for example, Ang Lee’s technically-elegant, soap opera crap has a multi-national audience, financial support, critical review (including inexplicable praise), and a chance to be seen as intended. In China, on the other hand, you have to buy a crappy edited version illegally on the street, and then get belittled the next day for being a naive, little “laowai” who stupidly thought he could keep up with the vast richness of the Chinese experience, which in conversation over the water cooler with local Shanghainese tends to focus on the length of Tang Wei’s nipples. Yeah. Deep.

    It’s as if Chinese people think that both lust and story-telling were a unique invention of the Han people, and that foreigners are fundamentally bereft of emotional and intellectual depth.

    那个, please!

  28. I don’t get too pissed off when Chinese say that Westerners can’t understand something, maybe because I hear it so often, and I don’t think it’s usually meant as an insult. Most of the Chinese people I’ve talked to don’t seem to think we would have a problem understanding the sex scenes, but feel that there’s a lot going on in some of the other scenes that westerners wouldn’t pick up on. I’d have to say there are a lot of nuances I couldn’t pick up on, and cultural differences go the other way as well: I don’t think a Chinese person would think every joke is funny in, say, “Harold and Kumar”, but if you asked them they would say they understand what the story’s about, even though they don’t know who the hell Doogie Houser is.
    Some of the comments here that seem to be to the effect of: “I understand it; these people meet, have rape/sex and one of them almost gets killed, what’s not to understand? I get it!” kind of demonstrate this sort of lack of understanding. One thing I’ve noticed about a lot of Ang Lee’s movies is that art direction for period-specific films is spot on. As someone who grew up in ’70s and ’80s America, I was really impressed by how accurate art direction, set design, wardrobe, etc. were in “The Ice Storm” and “Brokeback Mountain” (I haven’t seen “The Hulk” yet, let me know if I’m missing something), maybe those things are good in “Lust, Caution” as well. I wouldn’t know, not being Chinese and all.
    I almost feel like white westerners have been called racists by people of other races for so long that as soon as someone won’t speaks English instead of Chinese to us in a restaurant, or says we can’t understand something because our cultural background is different, we have to scream back: “You racist, xenophobic bastards! We’re not as stupid as you think!” Stop getting so pissed off.

    Oh, I’m not trying to say “Harold and Kumar” epitomizes American culture, just that it would be hard to understand if you weren’t American.

  29. Sorry that’s so hard to read, I didn’t leave any spaces between paragraphs and the site just crammed it all together.

  30. I think there is something to what Paul says above. In my experience everyone who has said they loved the film, really meant they loved the book.

  31. I still haven’t seen it.

    One of these days…

  32. Andy: what specifically is being missed? I think you assume vast cultural gulfs and hidden racist motivations just out of force of habit. In this case, none exist. Really. It’s just a movie by an International director who specializes in melodramas and also directed an adaptation of the comic book “Hulk.” It’s not particularly complex or deep, as far as art movies go.

    I don’t think it’s possible for movies to be so culturally obscure that the nuances fly off the radar and the movie can only be understood incorrectly. At most, the viewer may be initially confused or surprised by character’s motivations, or the director’s choice of focus.

    No-one gets angry and assumes racist motivations when Chinese waiters, in China, don’t speak English! And if anyone does, they’re not the sort of person who reads Sinosplice or watches Ang Lee melodramas.

  33. Jeffrey: I didn’t do a good job of making my point. I actually meant that I’ve heard other westerners complain when waiters will only speak English to them, when they happen to be speaking Chinese, not the other way around.

    And I wasn’t charging anyone with racist motivations. Rather, several previous comments had asserted that racist motivations were behind the assumption by some Chinese that westerners may not be able to understand the movie.

    I would disagree, too, with your statement that different levels of cultural understand couldn’t affect the way you watch a movie. A movie’s more than basic plotline, there’s a lot that goes that may require some cultural context to fully understand.

  34. Maybe what the comment (that foreigners just can’t understand) are about are the subtleties in the movie. That love, sex, war, and yes, all of life, is not just black or white.

    Unfortunately, most of the movies from America that get fair play in China are simple, dumb movies where the good guy is good and the bad guy is bad. Nothing is nuanced. (Yes, there are many fantastic books and movies from the States that don’t get noticed here or aren’t widely followed precisely because there are hard to understand for someone reads English as a second language and didn’t grow up in the West.)

    The Chinese also hear politicians from Reagan to Bush give us Cold War and War on Terror rhetoric like ‘either you’re with us, or against us.’ They understandably view Americans (and Westerners and ALL foreigners by association) as unsophisticated (Europeans get a bit of a pass here).

    Chinese people really do believe in the preeminence of their own culture, their 5,000 years of history, blah, blah, blah. To them, Americans are nothing but a brash, young upstart group of people with a short history and mongrel roots. ‘How can they understand anything cultural?’ They are still astonished when they meet foreigners who can speak Chinese, let alone someone that knows about concepts like ying, yang, and qi.

    True, most of the last 58-plus years have seen Chinese books and movies devoid of layers, subtleties and nuance. It is slowly returning, but the people have never lost their belief that Chinese culture is inaccessible to outsiders because of its richness. It’s an attitude completely understandable for a culture that was shut off to foreigners (besides merchants) for most of its history.

  35. Im not so sure most Chinese know too much about their history, The film was alright(best thing about it was the theme tune sung by 张学友。) Alot of the film invold stupid situations that could easily be avoided and It was not really a rape scene when the character had a job to do and never had love in her life, so that scene just symbolised that moment she obtained a desire but in an uneasy way.

    While watching it sometimes I felt like I was watching a film made for a western audience(like Zhang Yi Mou films) but later found too many things that the average joe would not recognise. I was suprised that some chinese like it but hey as I said its not too bad, just too long.

  36. I agree that the statement that non-Chinese audiences cannot get the movie is ridiculous. However, I do believe that non-Chinese audiences will not get all the nuisances that make this film great.

    For example, I was listening to a review of the film on my local public radio station and both reviewers complained about how slow the Mah-jong playing was and how that distracted from the film. They then went on to comment about how other asian film featured fast play mah-jong and how that was better. That is a utterly ridiculous statement and show a lack of understanding of the Chinese society.

    I think that an understanding of the culture allows the movie to hit you at a more emotional level. For example, compare Joy Luck Club and Terms of Endearment. Both deal with the same subject matter but would impact Chinese and non-Chinese audiences somewhat differently.

  37. Most movies have some subtle subtext, background, or detail that 90% of people won’t get. Making a big deal about that is riduculous as is the comment that foreigners won’t get Lust, Caution. Does anyone make a big deal about how people who grew up playing with Transformers might “get it” more than everybody else? It also begs the question, will every Chinese “get” Lust, Caution? Or will it just be relevant to a minority of Chinese people who actually have some connection to Shanghai, mahjong, and that history? Assuming Lust, Caution is relevant to all Chinese is the more riduclous assumption.

  38. Mike best comment on the subject goes to you.

  39. I think one of the major components that westerners might not understand is the deeply ingrained hatred of Chinese against the Japanese (Nanjing massacre). Due to that hatred and feelings of patriotic revenge, all Chinese traitors who support the Japanese to help kill their own people are seen as deeply malicious and evil. These themes may give Chinese people more insight about why the students are so eager to Kill Mr. Yi and why Mr. Yi is such a great traitor.

  40. Hey John, this thread got turned into a China Daily article.

  41. Joy: Chinese people often hate the Japanese? You’re kidding! Now I see the movie in a whole new light!

  42. davesgonechina,

    Yep, I blogged about it.

  43. […] 这是China Daily 01/18/2008 page19的一篇文章的标题,点击这里查看原文。然而这篇文章的最初构思来自一位老外的博客——John, Sinosplice.com. 他现在在浙江教书,维护数个博客并参与ChinaPod.com的制作。最初的讨论是由这篇日志引起的。呵呵,这篇的39条评论真长啊,看完它们发现已经凌晨4:43了,建议至今对《色戒》感兴趣的朋友看完这些评论,这基本上能代表中西文化在这一电影,以及相关之处上的冲突和交流。 […]

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