A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this subtitled, explicitly sexual World War II film is absolutely not for kids. It features several extremely graphic sex scenes (full frontal nudity, aggressive and sweaty activity in acrobatic positions, violence that borders on rape, and more), as well as other brief nudity, kissing, or awkward fumbling. Non-sexual violence includes brief combat scenes, bloody bodies in the street, explosions, shooting, an ugly stabbing scene, and an execution. Frequent cigarette smoking and drinking; language (in subtitles) includes one use of "f--k."
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What's the story?
Ang Lee's lush World War II melodrama LUST, CAUTION takes place over several years and is set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai (with brief respites in still-British Hong Kong). At its center is an espionage plot, but that's mostly a scaffolding for the remarkable, intricate relationship between Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) -- a Japanese collaborator and the brutal head of Shanghai's secret police -- and Wang (Tang Wei), a young Chinese patriot posing as a wealthy businessman's wife in order to set up Yee's assassination. Her group is so dedicated to this cause that even when their scheme is thwarted because Yee and his wife (Joan Chen) leave Shanghai, they pick it up again three years later. This dedication is, the movie proposes, partly a function of self-delusion. Not only do Wang's compatriots believe in the absolute good of their self-appointed mission, but they also believe in the absolute evil of their prey. As Wang crosses emotional and moral borders during her performance, she comes to see the problems with making such black-and-white distinctions. It's not that Yee can be forgiven for his violence -- his men arrest and execute resistance workers daily -- but that her own work is fraught with ethical grey areas. Her deceptions make her feel like a prostitute, a role that her mentor, Kuang (Wang Lee-Hom), can't quite understand. He does, however, come to feel a mix of guilt and jealousy as he begins to fall in love with her -- though he never tells her (which is also form of deception, born of his dedication to the cause).
Is it any good?
Emotionally wrenching, Lust, Caution has garnered attention particularly for its explicit sex scenes. Several aren't just graphic but also violent, illustrating Yee's cruelty and confusion (he's desperate to feel powerful) as well as Wang's desperate need to feel intimate with him, even at the cost of her well-being. But these scenes also serve a thematic purpose, raising questions about what's "real" in sex performed for films that aren't designated "pornography." At the same time, the sex scenes provide moments of sincere connection for Wang and Yee: The characters see each another as "real" when they engage in sweaty, acrobatic acts, taking emotional risks they don't take at any other time. Vulnerable and aggressive, their closeness in these moments is unsafe -- but also, for them, the safest they feel.
When Wang at last articulates her pain for Kuang and their resistance cell leader, Old Wu (Chung Hua Tou), the scene is startling because of her frankness, as well as the men's abandonment of her. Unlike Yee, who forces his way into her heart, they feel flummoxed by her description of sex and violent fantasies (she imagines shooting Yee herself) and tell her she must continue with the work that is so plainly upsetting her. While the thematic point seems obvious -- that patriotism needs prostitutes -- Wang's anguish and sudden understanding provide this sometimes lugubrious thriller's most chilling moment.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the film's strong sexual content. Is there a specific point or message director Ang Lee is making by including the explicit scenes? What (or who) determines whether sexual acts shown in movies are considered graphic or pornographic? Families can also discuss the movie's complicated relationships between prostitution and playacting and patriotism and vengeance. How does Wang come to see herself as an effective actress? How does she come to equate her nationalist duty with her ability (and desire) to seduce Yee? Do you think Yee is right when he says he is also a prostitute?
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