ELLA KELLEHER WRITES — Lust, Caution (2007) made by the visionary director, Ang Lee, is an erotic espionage film1 that begins in 1938, during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The story of this film has been believed by many to be inspired by true events and the life of a Chinese spy, Zheng Pingru2, although this claim is contested by some of her relatives.

Overview: What happens in the film?

The plot centers around a demure, young college girl, Wong Chia Chi, who attends her first year at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, alongside a few of her friends. One of them, a very patriotic Chinese man by the name of Kuang Yu Min, invites Chia Chi to join his theater club of students who desire to overthrow the Japanese puppet government in China. Kuang becomes enthralled by Chia Chi’s natural ability to act and immediately presumes that this fact would extend to her having the natural gift of deception. Kuang, with the help of the other theater club members, hatches a plot against the Japanese who were occupying Chinese territories. The plan surrounds the assassination of Mr. Yee, a puppet figure set up by the government of Wang Jingwei, a Chinese political figure during the war who was put in power by the Japanese occupying forces. Suddenly, Chia Chi is transformed into the elegant and mature, “Mrs. Mak,” the wife to a wealthy trading company owner. Chia Chi uses this false identity to infiltrate the social circle of Mr. Yee’s wife’s friends, allowing Chia Chi to get closer to her target. While playing a game of Mahjong with the wife of Mr. Yee, Chia Chi piques his interest as his gaze lingers on her; he nearly fell for her but leaves unexpectedly. After killing one of Mr. Yee’s henchmen, the theater club disbands and goes their separate ways.

In 1942, Shanghai, Chia Chi resumes her cover as “Mrs. Mak” alongside Kuang, now an undercover agent for the Kuomintang (KMT or Chinese Nationalist Party)3. Mr. Yee encounters Chia Chi and accepts her subtle advances. Mr. Yee then proceeds to intensely sexually assault Chia Chi and in their following sexual encounters, the emotions between the pair become far more intense as Chia Chi inwardly debates her true feelings for Mr. Yee. She feels a strange mixture of guilt and hatred towards him; guilt because she must assassinate him at some point and secretly loves him, and hatred because she knows how truly evil Mr. Yee is. Chia Chi’s, relationship with Mr. Yee intensifies on both a physical and emotional level, it becomes clear to the audience that both parties feel deep emotional conflict over their affair. Mr. Yee eventually sends Chia Chi to a jeweler with a closed envelope, Mr. Yee reveals that he had devised for a large diamond ring to be made for her. In this same romantic moment, the Chinese patriotic resistance enters the shop and wait to assassinate Mr. Yee while he is briefly vulnerable. Chia Chi adorns the diamond ring, a look of pain on her face, and quietly tells Mr. Yee that he must flee if he wishes to live, and he quickly runs away to safety. Soon after, the resistance members and Chia Chi are captured and are to be executed. In the last few minutes of the film, Mr. Yee enters his guest bedroom where Chia Chi stayed, and sits broken hearted on the empty bed, leaving the audience utterly shocked.

Analysis: Desire Versus Duty

Lust, Caution (2007) by Ang Lee can be interpreted as being about two opposing concepts: the innate human drive of both lust and desire, and the caution that comes with being a part of civilized society. In this film, the audience follows a narrative of a woman who belongs to both of these worlds, Wong Chia Chi. On one hand, Chia Chi is a cold and calculating agent of the Chinese patriotic resistance who is concentrated on her mission of murdering the cruel and corrupt Mr. Yee; however, she is also enraptured by Mr. Yee and is sexually drawn to him. Ang Lee is known for making films that challenge society’s constraints on sexuality, he tends to highlight the character’s, “essential natures despite [civil society],”4 that inevitably gets in the way, and causes the character’s ultimate demise.

The dichotomy of desire versus duty is visible even in the genre of the film, “erotic espionage thriller,”4 where one side of the film is dedicated to the pursuit of lust, and the other to the responsibility to one’s country. The passionate relationship between Mr. Yee and Chia Chi is not debauched, it is complex and has physical, emotional, and psychological5 dimensions. Both characters are attracted to each other because of their underlying similarities as they are, “two of the most fear-filled, confused, and desperate individuals who [ever] existed.”6 Mr. Yee’s fear stems from his paranoia of constantly believing he will be assassinated, he trusts nearly no one – not even Chia Chi – which could be exactly what makes her so enticing to him. Chia Chi is also terrified of death, except she fears that it will be Mr. Yee who will discover her deception and have her murdered. This strange game of cat and mouse translates into the bedroom, where their dialogue is the most transparent. In one scene, before both characters have sex with each other, Chia Chi says, “I hate you,” to which Mr. Yee responds, “I believe you. I haven’t believed anyone in a long time.”7 The hidden threat that each character poses to one another is what draws them closer, it is the thrill of danger that creates such a seductive affair. Mr. Yee and Chia Chi’s liaison allows them to briefly break free from the world – from the constraints of society; they are able to relieve all their stresses, fears, anger, and other volatile emotions during their sexual escapades.

Ang Lee uses this film to possibly convey an important message, that there are certain innate parts of our human condition that make us incompatible with a structured civil society. It can be argued that Lust, Caution (2007) begs the question of, ‘why is lust shameful in society?’ An essential part of the human condition is experiencing complex emotions like desire, sometimes to an overwhelming degree; however, the society in Lee’s film, 1930s China, demands strict composure and shames those who give in to fleshly desires. The importance of sexuality is not underscored in Lee’s film, Mr. Yee and Chia Chi communicate their most tumultuous emotions through the medium of sex, which makes the nature of the act even more intimate. They both feel that they are the safest when they are able to be completely naked with one another. Mr. Yee and Chia Chi use, “caution [as] their armor,” while they try to, “conquer,” one another during sex6.

It is also important to mention that the title of the film in Mandarin, “色,戒,” can be read
in two ways: ‘lust, caution’ or, ‘colorful ring,’ which refers to the ring that Mr. Yee gives to Chia Chi as a token of his love near the end of the film6. The ring binds together both the worlds of lust and caution and it symbolizes their affair. In perhaps the most important scene of the film, Chia Chi places the purple diamond ring on her finger, and before removing it, Mr. Yee says, “don’t take it off,” Chia Chi complies and begins to cry softly8. As Mr. Yee holds Chia Chi’s hand and stares at the ring, he lets go of his fears, if even for just a moment, and chooses to be with Chia Chi.

Ultimately, it is the responsibilities that come with living in society that destroys their affair as both characters succumb to their fears: Chia Chi yields to her fear of losing the man that she has grown to love and tells him that he must flee, and Mr. Yee allows for Chia Chi’s execution. In the final scene, Mr. Yee enters her bedroom and sits on the empty bed, he touches the sheets longingly, darkness surrounds him as he keeps one light on – like a boy still afraid of the dark. “Say nothing,”9 Mr. Yee instructs his wife who questions Mrs. Mak’s disappearance, a look of pain and vulnerability plastered across his features. Ang Lee’s brilliant cinematography communicates in this one final scene that, “the line between lust and caution is a foggy one, [tread] carefully.”6

  1. Ebert, Roger. “Lust, Caution Movie Review & Film Summary (2007): Roger Ebert.” Lust, Caution movie review & film summary (2007) | Roger Ebert, October 4, 2007. https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/lust-caution-2007. []
  2. Hsiao-yen, Peng. “From Eileen Chang to Ang Lee: Lust/Caution.” Google Books. Routledge, January 10, 2014. https://books.google.com/books?id=UJziAgAAQBAJ. []
  3. “Nationalist Party.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., n.d. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Nationalist-Party-Chinese-political-party. []
  4. Ebert, Roger. 2007. [] []
  5. Wang, Grace. “The Color of Our Emotions, or.” Far Flungers | Roger Ebert, 1 Feb. 2013, www.rogerebert.com/far-flung-correspondents/the-color-of-our-emotions-or-. []
  6. Wang, Grace. 2013. [] [] [] []
  7. Lust, Caution. Directed by Ang Lee. River Road Entertainment, 2007: 1:40:03 []
  8. Lust, Caution. 2007: 2:20:07 []
  9. Lust, Caution. 2007: 2:29:38 []


  1. Amazing, insightful review on a great movie that unfortunately wasn’t received well at the time but no doubt will stay classic. Thank you, Ella

  2. This is an excellent review of a film that may ultimately prove to be Ang Lee’s greatest. It deserved much more attention than it received. Perhaps the length of the film militated against it doing well with US audiences.

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