Monday, October 29, 2007

R. B. Kitaj RIP + Film Review: Lust, Caution

I was sorry to hear of the recent passing of R(onald) B(rooks) Kitaj (1932-2007), one of the important contemporary British figurative artists (though born in the US) of the late 20th century. I associate Kitaj and his work, especially the paintings, drawings and prints, with several generations of visual artists who were closely aligned and allied with writers; in Kitaj's case, he had close links to a number of poets who came to note from the late 1950s through the 1970s (cf. the images below), and was a published poet himself. Critic Jed Perl offers a moving tribute, entitled "Impassioned," in the current New Republic; here's a quote:

Kitaj was a connector, an engager, both in the complexity of the themes that he embraced in his painting and in the richness of the social world that he inhabited. He had the old-time bohemian feeling for the life of art as an adventure to be savored, to be approached with a certain deliberateness, and maybe even with a certain sense of ceremony. Whether you were going with him to an exhibition in London or, more recently, after he moved back to the United States, having a glass of juice with him at the little table in his kitchen in Los Angeles, there was a sense that something important might happen--that feelings and ideas were in the air. His houses were themselves works of art, especially the house in LA, where rare prints hung next to art postcards and newspaper clippings and there was one room devoted to the great Jewish writers and another dedicated to Cézanne, whose lithographs were among Kitaj's treasured possessions. As he was talking he might rummage in a jam-packed bookcase and pull out some rare set of film magazines, bought years ago in London for a ridiculously small sum. He was a polymath, with a reverence for information and ideas that was all the more acute because he had learned so much of it on his own. He certainly brought the ardor of the audodidact-intellectual to his letter writing.

"A Day Book by Roger Creeley" ( Portfolio including 13 signed & numbered graphics: 8 screenprints, 4 etchings, 1 lithograph, 24 in. x 16.3 in, 1972), Viviane Bregman Fine Art.


On Saturday I went to see Ang Lee's new film Lust, Caution [Se, Jie] (2007), which has been generating a great deal of controversial over several sexually explicit scenes (and yes, they are explicit by movie standards, though in the increasingly pornotopic society we live in, most of them, save one, barely merit an eyeblink), including earning a NC-17 rating, but also mixed-to-poor reviews, like this one, or this one. After reading a few of the reviews, I have to wonder if I saw the same film. Rather than a musty historical drama or a "monotone...spy drama," Lee's film is a compelling dramatization of the dangers that fuzzy-brained idealism, especially when reason gives way to passion, which it usually does when sex is involved, and the stakes are more than theoretical. The film takes place during the Japanese occupation of China during World War II, and revolves around a small group of university students who evacuate from the mainland to Hong Kong, and start up a theater group whose aim is to build up patriotic fervor among Chinese residents and exiles of that British colony. The troop succeeds all too well, and decides, in a tragic turn at least some of them come to rue, that instead of playacting, they ought to be acting against traitors and collaborators for real. Wang Jizhi (Wei Tang, in one of the most moving performances I've seen in some time), a virginal young semi-orphan--her father has moved to Britain with her younger brother, leaving her on her own--agrees to play the fictional wife, Mrs. Mak Tai Tai, of a pseudo-businessman, in order to snare collaborator Mr. Yee (Tony Leung, the star of Wong Kar-Wai's masterpieces Happy Together, In the Mood for Love and 2046), a cool, beautiful, terrifying creature who eventually proves that no brutality is beneath him. I won't give away the plot, but events initially foil the theater troop's clumsy attempts to kill Mr. Yee, who heads off to Shanghai; when the plot resumes four years later, in Shanghai, thinks unfold in such a manner that it's clear Wang and her conspirators, which include the Chinese resistence, have no idea what they've gotten themselves into; not only bodies, but spirits are shattered by the end of the film.

Ang Lee isn't a director I look to for any sort of formal innovation, and the structure of this film bears this out; it's fiction or screenwriting 201: rather than strict linearity, the film starts in the unfolding present, jumps backwards to fill in the plot (and what a plot), then returns to the present, repeating what we've seen before just in cases, before moving towards the climax, which has been amply prepared for up to this point. But form here is only the basic container for what's most important, which is the underlying idea, stunning dramatized. As with his previous film, the landmark Brokeback Mountain, this film is about conviction, principles, desire, and love--and sex, really--under very difficult, or more aptly, impossible consequences. Here, not fully understanding the consequences spells the worst trouble, for all involved. The wannabe patriots, Wang as spy-and-lover, and even the chilling Mr. Yee, all fail to grasp the outcome of what they have dared to undertake, and the sex, as the literal objective correlative and embodiment of risk, assumes tremendous power beyond any prurience. Every moment of the over-the-top sex here is essential, especially when we hear Wang describe, to the evident dismay and regret of her fellow plotter and the disgust of the resistence chief, how it's not only physically and psychologically destroying her, but how totally compromising it is. This is nobody's playacting.

As for the acting, I focused on Wei Tang and Tony Leung, and they did not disappoint, though Joan Chen, as Leung's disengaged wife, also shines. Tang convincingly moves from ingenue to a far more complicated character, glamorous and controlled on the outside, but roiling within. Leung always appears to be roiling, his expression as tight as a tripwire, and when he explodes.... In this film that word had multiple valences, and while I don't want to find ethnocentrism under every bushel, I wonder whether if this film were set in Northern Ireland, say, and instead of Tang and Leung, it were, say, Naomi Watts and Justin Timberlake (not that he'd be qualified to play such a role, but then again, has that ever stopped Hollywood?) rolling around nude, banging and panting and nearly breaking bedframes, the critiques would be so peremptory? Lee has already suggested, perhaps too defensively, that the film would meet with negative criticism; it isn't perfect or even close, and has some clunky parts--particularly some of the historical scenes, but it is a great deal better than so much of what's out there, and the acting is one reason why.

Other critics have noted that this film is insistently political, and directly germane to our current crises in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East and world; though it's set 60 years ago in a foreign country, China, that we continue to exoticize while also ignoring at our peril, it's one of the most powerful critiques of the jingoism, amateur cowboy warmaking, and failed long-term thinking of this current administration's overseas adventures I've seen in a while. If the Bush administration is the happy-go-lucky and horribly incompetent theater troupe-cum-conspirators, then I guess Wang would be our military, and, as more than a few very knowledgeable military officials, analysts and scholars have put it, our military under George Walker Bush, Dick Bruce Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and the neocons, has been, to put it bluntly, f*cked.


  1. Your review coupled with my interest in this film his propelled me to see it this weekend. Great review.

  2. Tai, definitely check it out if you can, and thanks for dropping in!

  3. I finally got to see it, John, just a few weeks ago, and I loved it. More than loved it. I thought that Ang Lee succeeded with a tight, well-written script and nuanced exploration of sex, nationalism and subterfuge, and in so doing, succeeded where Wong Kar-Wai tends to get messy. Every shot counted in LUST, CAUTION, and it was as sexy as it was utterly frightening (the opening scene caught my breath the most). I wonder which sex scene you're referring to...