Simon Dawes interviews Stephanie Hemelryk Donald on Ang Lee’s ‘Lust Caution’

Simon Dawes interviews Stephanie Hemelryk Donald, whose article, ‘Tang Wei: Sex, the City, and the Scapegoat in Lust Caution, is now available in Theory, Culture & Society (volume 27, number 4).

Image: Stephanie Hemelryk Donald

Simon Dawes: Could you start by telling us about the significance of the sex scenes in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution to the narrative of the film, and how this is affected by cutting them from the film – as happened to the version distributed in mainland China?

Stephanie Hemelryk Donald: The sex scenes are immensely important to the film in two ways. As I argue in the paper, the most obvious is that the sex between the two main protagonists is explicit and violent, but also passionate and erotic. This is confronting to any audience, in so far as the relation between the erotic and the violent, between erotic need and emotional attachment, between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ sexual partnership is one that can and does breach the bounds of the social. It reminds us of the ways in which humans can revel in a loss of control, in the breach of norms, values and expectations that it can take a lifetime to build internally, and several lifetimes for a society to make absolute. An absolute condition of membership if you like. Of course, extreme, or even quite ordinary, sexual behaviours are also reaffirmations of gendered performance and of inter-generational, inter-gender and other identifications of power. In this case, however, Lust, Caution is specifically addressing a national audience where power is premised on a political organization of social meaning and structure. Society and politics are so closely linked that risk and uncertainty are factored into both systems to an extraordinary (and one might say pathologically dangerous) way. Libidinous relationships between social actors – i.e. aspects of the social which are presumed to be managed by norms but which may veer into the excessive or the unconstrained – introduce more uncertainty to the ‘harmonious’ management of everyday life. More profoundly, they are a potential risk to the structure of legitimation, which allows China to function as a very large semi-centralised and semi-devolved political entity.

The sex scenes in Lust, Caution detail a relationship that ignores the divisions of received historical appropriateness. What’s more, instead of talking about that relationship, the scenes enact the irreducibility of this liaison to the political or the social. Lust and sex are actors in their own rights within and across and despite both of these interpolated worlds of being. Obvious perhaps, but very challenging. In the year 2008 – when the Chinese body was lauded as an exemplary athletic body, a perfectly negotiated and synchronised body – this film reminds us that the body is also (potentially and actually) desiring, disobedient, organic, iterative and inconstant. It is if you like, a cosmopolitan agent wandering provocatively around in a State drama, which assumes national types.

Second, the sex scenes are cinematically important because the director understands that they actually tell the story of the affair. Everything else is context. That is why I compare the film to Last Tango in Paris. That’s also why I do not consider the film to be pornographic. If the scenes are cut out, or shortened, or edited without the director’s eye present (can that be a definition of censorship?), then the plot disappears and all we have is a story. Not a bad story, but a slight one. In this reading, the film is about the progression of lust. It claims that the lust is a least as important an actor/motivator as national myth, or faithful characterisations of historical figures, in defining the structure of attention with which we ‘see’ historical fact. That is a highly dangerous proposition to a State that must at least be seen to control the workings of history, even if that control is always imperfect. In ‘sex scenes’ I include the two rapes of the main character by the fellow student who is charged to educate her in sexual activity as preparation for her role as femme fatale.

Image: Lust, Caution (2007): Entanglement. Courtesy of Universal Studios Licensing LLLP

SD: How severe was the PRC (People’s Republic of China) government’s reaction to the film at the time of its release (in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008)? And could you give us an update – have things calmed down a bit since then?

SHD: The reaction was severe in so far as Tang Wei (the principal actress in the film) was used as a scapegoat for a number of sexually-related ‘uncertainties’ and inconsistencies with the national message of coherence and athletic heroism. Those are discussed in the article. Arguably she was also a scapegoat for the whole rash of irritations, most specifically the Tibetan riots, which were reported over the same week that Tang Wei’s position began to deteriorate sharply in terms of her media profile and the comments about her online. Her career was stalled and her contracts with beauty companies and promotions (Oil of Ulay, for example) were cancelled. It was as though she was actually the traitor, rather than an actress giving a very good and brave performance. Scapegoating is always a severe reaction for the person who is targeted. It also indicates to society that the local individual may expect to pay a price when implicated in testing the neuroses of the state. She has recently made her comeback film (released 2010) Crossing Hennessy, a Hong Kong production, and a Korean film, Late Autumn. She is also appearing more frequently in media interviews on the Mainland. Whether her return to screen work outside the Mainland indicates that she has somehow enacted a negotiation between the status of the character Tang Wei as an historical object and her own role as a ‘subject of a process of signification that must erase any prior or originary presence’ (Bhabha, Location of Culture, 145), is another matter.

H. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994)

SD: You discuss the government’s reaction to the film in terms of moral hegemony, and focus your analysis on the relation between masculinity and the state. Could you elaborate on these themes?

SHD: It is not possible to insist on such an overweening overlap between society and politics without also claiming moral hegemony. If society is the harmonious performance of the state’s program of development and order, and if the state is the arbiter of what constitutes social harmony, then morality is assumed to be in the gift of those who claim power to speak on behalf of Chinese interests and Mainland Chinese people. I do not suggest that the claim is always substantiated, nor always accepted. China is far more complex geographically, politically, and socially than that. Nonetheless, the attempt to claim the moral ground and to act as though that claim is valid is central to the constancy of power relations. The reference to masculinity is to some degree literal and it is not exceptional either. The default position for morality in China and elsewhere is all too often the perspective favoured by a certain version of male interest. I don’t think I need to elaborate on that, except to say that the effect is deleterious for the emotional lives of actually existing men as well as actually existing women, However, the specific conditions of cinematic history in China, especially in regards to the Liberation (1949) and to Sino-Japanese relations throughout the 20s, 30s and 40s, was to establish a masculine China that could resist outside intervention and control its own fate. This has been encapsulated in Hong Kong cinema through the 1970s Bruce Lee’s all-kicking all sweating ripostes to the idea of China as the sick man of Asia (reprised in Donny Yen’s Ip Man and Jet Li’s more recent films – Once Upon a Time in China series) , but also in the smoothly consistent and sexually inaccessible Party heroes of films made in the People’s Republic of China. Even in a film that purports to place women at the centre of armed resistance, such as The Red Detachment of Women (Xie Jin 1961), the vanishing point is the sexual attraction between key protagonists that is appropriated by the erotics of Party affiliation and revolutionary action. The State as an idea is far less erotically charged than the revolution but it is nonetheless the inheritor of the process, and clings onto to its systems of exchange. The Party and government went through a renewal process when the older men died throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but it seems that the habits of old men are still in place. One might say that a state that insists on control of sexuality is masculine and anti-masculine, in so far as only one man is not castrated – but even that man (the inheritor of the state) is castrated in fact because he too is a subject of history. In Freud’s terms the state wants access to all the females in the tribe, but doesn’t actually know what to do with them. In Lacanian terms, the state wants to be Potent but ends up insisting on impotence. The relationship at the centre of Lust Caution produces a shift from violence to oneness, and equivalence. In the last sex scene the male evidently does know what to do with the woman, and the woman with him. Through the actions of making love, they also know what to do with themselves. The violence is repelled and the State is momentarily petrified. But of course, as the film concludes, the masculine rears back up and the woman is murdered by the State. How odd that the state in 2008 should find it necessary to enact a symbolic execution on Tang Wei’s career.

SD: How do you apply Lacan’s idea of ‘oneness’ to the idea of ‘physical entanglement’ and the body of Tang Wei?

SHD: I am taking up the notion that whilst an idea of masculine Oneness resides with an un-nameable Sovereign entity / Godhead, and is in fact a cheat on those who must bear and police its borders, feminine Oneness is urgent, transitory and as such dependent on action for achievement. Representing Oneness is thus an authoritarian project of absulter symbolic meaning on the one hand, and a leap into action on the other. The ‘physical entanglement’ that Ang Lee creates from the bodies of the man and the woman (or He and She in Last Tango in Paris) strikes me as an expression of feminine Oneness. It attaches to itself the possibility of a symbolic structure that both exceeds, and incorporates the political, the social and the quasi-spiritual power of national historiography. The act is madness (because it cannot be sustained) but it recognises the psychosis that the State imposes on itself and its subjects, and rejects that. The use of the still image, which is of course so important to the commercial and analytic process of pinning down a film and insisting on a particular kind of sense-making, here prolongs the entanglement and in some sense betrays the lucidity of the cinema. I accept that contradiction.

Stephanie Hemelryk Donald is Dean of Media and Communication at RMIT University and Honorary Professor of Chinese Media Studies at the University of Sydney. Recent books include: Branding Cities: Cosmopolitanism, Parochialism and Social Change; Tourism and the Branded City: Film and Identity on the Pacific Rim. She is currently working on visual responses to the Cultural Revolution. [email:]

Simon Dawes is the Editorial Assistant of Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society, and the Content Editor of the TCS Website

You can read Stephanie Hemelryk Donald‘s article ‘Tang Wei: Sex, the City, and the Scapegoat in Lust Caution and the rest of TCS 27.4 here

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

nineteen − nineteen =

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.