Caution, Globalisation

Caution, Globalisation
Can Chinese Cinema really be global?

Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007) deals with espionage, sensuality, power dynamics, and loyalty to one’s country. These are wildly different facets that he managed to marry successfully in this epic. The film is set during the Japanese occupation of China, and it is about a group of Chinese university theatre students coming up with a plan to help their country. The group sets up a mission to assassinate a Japanese collaborator, Mr. Lee (Tony Leung), using the ingenue main character, Wong Chia Chi or as she is known for most of the film, Mrs. Mak (Tang Wei) as bait. Their efforts are seen as an amateur and childish attempt at resistance which ends up being costly for everyone involved. This heavy plot is also interwoven with the everyday life of the 1930s dealing with food scarcity and citizens leaving China to escape the occupation.

Lust, Caution begins with a Mahjong game between four ladies. It might seem inconsequential but this is a pivotal moment and sets the tone of the film. Unfortunately, to an English audience like myself, in that opening scene alone, there are a lot of elements lost in translation. We do not realise that the characters’ Mahjong moves have a relation to what they are saying. One prominent instance is when one of the ladies mention Ban Feng (literal meaning carry wind) or change of wind, as she links it to her friend’s husband’s promotion. To a global audience, these types of references and layers to the film are lost and makes the film more for the Chinese audience rather than the international. Even the title itself has such dimensionality that is lost in English translation. Chang explains this in Transnational Affect: Cold Anger, Hot Tears, and Lust, Caution.

An impossibility of trans-lation of a film title from Chinese to English, 《色∣戒》 to Lust, Caution, the most recent film of an espionage romance set in the Japanese-occupied Shanghai in the 40s by Ang Lee, the world-famous director from Taiwan. The impossibility has less to do with the way in which the multiple and ambivalent meanings of the Chinese title (se as sex, lust, or appearance; jie as ring, caution, or renunciation; se jie as a colored diamond ring, sexual abstinence, or a Buddhist warning against secular indulgence) are narrowed down to two plain English words, lust and caution, and more to do with the seemingly meaningless, trivial, yet eerily unusual mark “ ” adopted in the ∣ Chinese title disappears and is replaced by a comma, a familiar mark of pause, interval and separation in English.

However, if it is for a Chinese audience why not strive for accuracy? How is it that in 1939 Shanghai the characters are speaking in different accents? Although they all speak Mandarin and are supposed to be originally from Shanghai, Mr. Lee prominently speaks with a Hong Kong tinge. The difference in accents were again unnoticeable to a global audience but to our advantage as we would not be able to point out the inaccuracy unless mentioned by a Chinese friend.

The issues discussed only deals with language. What about the story and the visuals? The story is very much rooted in Chinese history. Ang Lee used the Japanese occupation as a backdrop for his film, making Lust, Caution a period piece dedicated solely to a particular dark mark on Chinese history. This storytelling technique of setting the film in that specific time and place renders the film more Chinese. It is a unique experience which a real group of Chinese nationals went through.

Nevertheless, the set up may be Chinese but the themes are not. Patriotism, love, loyalty, betrayal and friendship are the driving forces of Lust, Caution. These are the emotional core of the whole cinematic package and they just happen to be universal themes. They are not exclusively Chinese topics. The other two themes, espionage and sex, were the shiny wrapper the film was encased in.

So, is Lust, Caution solely a Chinese film? Honestly, that is not the first thought that will come to mind when you watch it. It doesn’t beg for the audience, screaming, “Notice me! I’m Chinese, aren’t I exotic?” in an offensive way that most Hollywood portrayals of the Asian experience showcase. You focus on the story. Maybe it is just a case of a great director who knows how to portray a China that feels more authentic, more honest, for that time period, that you get lost in it. Ang Lee immerses us into the world of the film like inviting us to do improv in a play. Or maybe it is the fact that he did grow up in an environment that felt the aftershock of the Japanese occupation of China. Having listened to gruesome, traumatic stories that my grandmother used to tell me about Japanese soldiers and the occupation, I can relate. I would understand the mindset of making such a film. It must have been cathartic for Lee.

On the other hand, I do not agree that Lust, Caution is a Hollywood film. The gorgeous set pieces are reminiscent of that, more noticeably in the Japanese tea house and the coffee shop in the beginning. There were visual and storytelling tricks that Ang Lee borrowed from Hollywood but this does not make Lust, Caution wholly Hollywood. 

If it’s not a Chinese or Hollywood film, what is it? Is it a hybrid? I believe Ang Lee hit the sweet spot. I think this might be a truly international film. It’s not an easy feat to achieve. I believe it can be enjoyed locally by Taiwan and China, albeit with great apprehension by the latter, and by the global audience as well. Only a few films outside of the U.S. have done this successfully. Lust, Caution’s appeal reminded me of Amelie (2001), an incredibly, earnest French film but beloved by cinephiles worldwide, and Malena (2000), an Italian period piece set in the same era of World War II as Lust, Caution. The film also happens to deal with sexuality.

Overall, it can be said that Chinese Cinema can be global. However, there is a compromise if Chinese (Mandarin, Shanghainese, Hokkien, Cantonese, etc.) languages are used for the dialogue of the film. There will be portions lost in translation, the same as any foreign film. But it’s nothing a quick Google search can fix, and isn’t that what globalisation is really about?


Bordwell, David and Kristin Thompson. Film Art. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2008. Print.

Chang, Hsiao-Hung. “Transnational Affect: Cold Anger, Hot Tears, And Lust, Caution”. Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies 31-50.35.1 (2016): n. pag. Print.

Ebert, Roger. “Lust, Caution Movie Review & Film Summary (2007) | Roger Ebert”. N.p., 2007. Web. 20 Sept. 2016.

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