New China: Ang Lee's Cautionary Tale of Lust

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Lust and Caution in China
by Peter Kwong
In China’s paternalistic society, all cultural programs are vetted for questionable content. Sex, violence, and immoral presentations are weeded out for fear that people would follow and act upon them -- and lead the country into chaos.
That is one reason only 20 foreign-made films per-year are allowed for screening in China -- and, of course, only after censors at the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) cut out footage they deem improper.
[Republished at PFP with express Agence Global permission.] 
Ang Lee's "Lust and Caution" is a surprising hit in China. That it survived state censorship is surprising, since the Chinese government allows only twenty foreign films a year. But it did, and its popularity in China is perhaps a reading of cultural changes in China.

A notable victim this year was Chow Yun Fat, the most famous Chinese leading man and star of the Academy Award winning "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." His role as the ruthless Pirate Lord of the South China Sea in "Pirates of Caribbean: At World’s End" was judged as “vilifying and humiliating to Chinese people” and most of his scenes were slashed -- to the great disappointment of his Chinese fans.

The permission to show "Lust and Caution," directed by the internationally renowned Taiwanese-born director Ang Lee ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Sense and Sensibility," "The Ice Storm," "Brokeback Mountain") therefore came as a real surprise. The content of this film is truly subversive by any conventional Chinese standard.

Adopted from a short story by Eileen Chang, the movie takes place during the 1940’s in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. A patriotic student, Wong Chia-Chi, volunteers to go undercover as a married woman in a plot to first seduce and then assassinate a prominent Japanese collaborationist, Mr. Yee, the spy chief of the puppet government. In the process of seducing him, she discovers feelings for him. In fact, the two develop a mutual passionate sexual attraction in the midst of hellish war. In the end, Wong lets Yee get away from her fellow partisans, who were about to kill him.

The reception of the film in the West has been lukewarm. Most critics find the perverse sexuality in this espionage thriller cold and insipid. No one has ranked it in the same category with Lee’s previous award-winning hits. But the movie is a cultural phenomenon for the global Chinese community.
Hong Kong audiences flocked to see it, and it earned an unprecedented US$474,000 in its first three days. In Taiwan, it swept the 2007 Golden Horse Awards by winning seven prizes, and took in a record-breaking $1.07 million in the same timeframe. In China, though, the version is 30 minutes shorter than that seen by the rest of the world.
Ang Lee cooperated by cutting parts of the film himself to have it pass the censors. The movie reaped $12 million in its first two weeks, to become the year's biggest hit. Millions of pirated DVDs have been sold all across the country.

Chinese viewers have saturated the media and cybersphere with critical comments. According to (the largest Chinese-language infotainment portal in the world) up to 1.5 million reviews of the film have been posted by bloggers -- a record in Sina's history.

Much of the commentary expresses outrage at government censors for butchering the film by cutting out graphic sex scenes and other footage, making it at times incomprehensible. A PhD student at the China University of Politics and Law is suing SARFT, seeking apologies and 500 yuan due to "psychological damages" for infringement on his rights as a consumer.

There is also the most strident condemnation of Ang Lee for depicting a depraved love affair between two individuals, while using China’s sacred struggle for national salvation from Japanese occupation only as a backdrop. Giving a collaborator a human face is tantamount to trying to revise the historical judgment of traitors involved in the puppet regime. A group of prominent leftist intellectuals has even circled an e-mail petition, asking for the signatures of Chinese patriots residing both in the country and abroad, to condemn Ang Lee for defiling the honor of millions of their countrymen who had died for China -- this being the 70th anniversary of the Nanking Massacre.

Ang Lee has positioned his two characters at the opposite ends of the political divide of this tense historic period in order to expose the ultimate core of human emotions. Dispensing with a conventional sense of good and evil, he follows his complex portrayal of the human psyche through to the almost unbearably bitter end.

What is truly subversive about the film is letting the heroine’s emotions triumph despite pressure from her co-conspirators -- and in the face of social expectations. Lee’s approach stands in sharp contrast to that of Zhang Yimou, the foremost director in China. In Zhang’s internationally well received and visually stunning film, “Hero,” the leading characters learn to accept the loss of personal love, bury family loyalty, and forego revenge for the wrongs done to their comrades, all in service of a larger goal -- China’s unification under one ideology and one Emperor.

In this age of rapid economic growth and increasing interactions with the outside world, the censors may not know what is best for China. People in China want to think for themselves. Ang Lee has used his film to subtly nudge them in that direction.

Peter Kwong, a professor of Asian American studies at Hunter College, is co-author of Chinese America: The Untold Story of America's Oldest New Community.

Copyright © 2007 Peter Kwong

Released: 31 December 2007
Word Count: 837

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Agence Global is the exclusive syndication agency for The Nation, Le Monde diplomatique, as well as expert commentary by Richard Bulliet, Mark Hertsgaard, Rami G. Khouri, Peter Kwong,Tom Porteous, Patrick Seale and Immanuel Wallerstein.

Released: 31 December 2007
Word Count: 837
Rights & Permissions Contact: Agence Global, 1.336.686.9002, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  

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