By Carolina S. Ruiz Austria

The word "Heresy"

was used by Irenaeus in Contra Haereses to discredit his opponents in the early Christian Church. It has no purely objective meaning without an authoritative system of dogma.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Ang Lee Tackles the Banality of Evil

Before watching Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution," I already read many reviews about the movie that weren't really "raving" about it the way critics had been over Brokeback Mountain. I watched it anyway and I liked it a lot. Its really difficult to compare it with "Brokeback Mountain" which is what a lot of critics and film reviewers were doing since it was Ang Lee's most recently well acclaimed work.

I did also like "Brokeback Mountain" and even wrote about it when I started blogging in 2005 and like many people I found it very touching and as love stories go, it was a real tear jerker (at least for me). I know there were a lot of people who were not quite as ready to see two Malboro men making out and falling hopelessly in love but what can I say? Wasn't that Ang Lee's point in making the movie?

"Brokeback" was very Hollywood and in a way that "Lust, Caution" was not so. Based on a novel by Eileen Chang, I am sure the film is very much Ang Lee's interpretation of the story since the book (although I have never read it) is usually classified as a "spy thriller."

In the film, you could say Ang Lee really explored the difficult topics of humanity, morality, evil, conscience and redemption through the unlikely love story that develops from such an unlikely situation. A spy for the resistance whose mission was to seduce her target so that in the end they could assasinate him, is also the unlikely spy. A young woman who has had to "learn" about how to have sex (and skip all romantic hopes about a "first time"), emerges not quite as you expect as a hard bitten or reluctant spy, the likes of which we have seen in La Femme Nikita. Although no less cunning and competent in her espionage, Mak Tai Tai is unlike Nikita because she came from a sheltered background. She falls in love with a "brave talking" young revolutionary who has ambitions of joining the resistance (along with his rag tag group of bored college friends) but in the end, she is braver than the rest of them.

But the idea of falling in love and making a connection with somebody like Yee who was a torturer, murderer and rapist is also what was perhaps most difficult for many who tend to look at the characters just as what they represented in the context of "war." It was World War II after all. While there are fewer remaining survivors and witnesses of WW2, subsequent generations have formed "collective" images of the war mainly from movies about it. Yet unlike any previous WW2 movie I have seen, nothing comes close to Ang Lee's take on people's lives (fictional or otherwise)during war.

Beyond the binary narrative of "good/evil" that plays out in the consciousness of either the occuppied population or the conquering forces (the self-proclaimed liberator), Ang Lee instead sought to take a close look at human beings.

Yet the actors were undoubtedly part of the reason the film was convincing and the subtelties of Ang Lee's symbolism is unmistkably effective. Yee regains his humanity and falls in love with Mak Tai Tai. Numbed by the violence he was expected to inflict everyday as part of his job (as the torturer for the occupying Japanese forces), even the way he has sex with Mak Tai Tai in the beginning portrays both his brutality and his fear.

There is ambiguity in the sex act which takes place between them. It is violent and it looks like rape. It is rape. Mak Tai Tai never expected that in order to be his mistress, she would have to endure brutal sex. Then it changes. He changes. She changes. It is still ambigous. She is on a mission and knows anytime soon, members of the resistance can notify her and arrange to have him killed.

Is it rape? She is on a mission and she knows what she is doing. Even after the brutal rape of the first time he has sex with her, she manages a triumphant smile. She has gotten him where she wants him - she is finally his mistress, and all was going according to plan.

Yet is it? By the time she pleads with the resistance leaders to end her suffering it isn't clear whether she's pleading for them to end her having to go through the sex because she is degraded by it or because she is falling in love with a torturer, a monster who has killed and inflicted suffering on so many in the resistance.

It is however clear that Yee has fallen for her. He buys her extravagant gifts but while an expensive diamond ring can look like and represent simply that: an extravagant gift, it actually means a little something more to the lovers. She breaks down and tells him simply to go. Instinctively he understands and rushes off. He knows he has been targeted for assasination. It is something he almost expects.

Yee of course is still a murderer and a torturer. When his subordinates tell him they have known about the group of college kids turned resistance members and had in fact arrested her Mak Tai Tai's cell members and easily obtained information from the lot of them, he is angry about not havng been told but he is also clearly devastated.

Admitting the profundity of his connection with Mak could spell his own end and also that of his wife and family. It would show him incompetent in his job and also weak. So he denies ownership of the ring she has returned. He even signs the orders to have her executed with her cell members.

Of course here it is expected that reactions will range from disbelief to categorical rejection of any hopes about Yee's redemption. He is beyond redemption. He had her killed after all. Even if he regrets it later, does that make him less of a monster? I think not but I also think it doesn't make him less human.

Before falling in love with Mak, Yee actually carried out his torture without serious thought ( Or even without thought, as Arendt observed of Nazi war criminals). When the clock strikes 10 (the time of his orders to execute Mak and her cell members) he actually although very quietly,vissibly suffers. While others will argue about the triviality of his pain in comparison to what he has inflicted, again I am reminded of Arendt's insights about the banality of evil.

“Is evil-doing … possible in default of not just ‘base motives’ ... but of any motives whatever … Might the problem of good and evil, our faculty for telling right from wrong, be connected with our faculty of thought?” Hannah Arendt


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