This Ang Lee epic (aren't they all?) drama is well worth watching. It's also disturbing - a serious work about love, death, war, fascism, youthful idealism, and of what, depending upon your POV, it takes to make either a freedom fighter or a terrorist. An espionage drama with a gritty Grahame Greene feel to it.
The protagonist is Wong Chia Chi, played by the absolutely gorgeous and talented Tang Wei. She is the unwanted daughter of a rich man who has fled China. At school in Hong Kong at the end of the '30's, when China is torn by warring factions and the Japanese are very much the enemy, she falls in with a group of politically-minded students who form a patriotic drama group. She becomes the star of their show to provide support for the Chinese cause. Afterwards, realizing that they haven't actually done anything useful, the group of five, now friends, resolve to take action. They decide to assassinate an important collaborator, Yee (played by Tony Leung) who has arrived from the mainland. Since their target is well-protected, they invent a honey trap baited with Chia Chi, disguised as the neglected wife of a businessman, although she has no sexual experience.
Their efforts nearly succeed. Yee, middle-aged and with a boring wife, is intrigued by her youth and charm. However he returns to China before the group can take action, and the messy murder of a minor thug drives Chia Chi away from them.
A few years later with the Japanese and Kuomintang now in full murderous control of South China, members of the cell, discover Chia Chi living in poverty in Shanghai. They recruit her back to finish the job, supported by mysterious Chinese resistance agents now that Yee has become head of the secret police. The last half of the movie details her successful attempt to become Yee's mistress and her struggle to bring him to be murdered by the group. Needless to say, it does not end happily.
The mind and behaviour of the character Yee, is very disturbing. A powerful and ruthless killer, he is apparently completely amoral. He even knows that the collaborationist regime he supports is doomed. We are seeing corruption taking place as his civilized exterior is eroded by his lust for his work. His internal conflicts appear only when he is shown in the home with his rich, spoiled wife. When alone with Chia Chi he can give rein to his brutal nature. This includes some of the most violent but compelling sex scenes that I have seen in a serious movie. Most of them have been cut from most distributions. The reaction of the woman who is raped and tortured, and cannot flee because of her commitments is breathtaking - she hates it and yet she is consumed by it. In a horrible irony, her compliance actually changes her abuser; he comes to some form of love for her, although he is still a monster.
Another interesting characterization was that of the students; young, well-educated, idealistic, and with a sense of justice and righteousness on their side. They take to the life of a terrorist cell as a desperate measure to do something in an attempt to help their cause. This seems to me to be the real explanation for ideologically driven espionage and terrorism, from the Cambridge group in the '30's to the people who brought down the World Trade Center towers. Once people are caught in a web of ideology in their formative years it is easy to see how they can be used to do almost anything.
The incidental scenes of life in China in the 1939-1943 are also very striking: rich collaborators having polite tea and mahjong parties while the poor are brutalized by soldiers; destitute multitudes passing through security checkpoints and in breadlines; lost White Russians washed up in Shanghai working as prostitutes and rickshaw runners.
All told, a brilliant, serious work.
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