Becoming Modernized or Simply "Modern"?

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Hsien-hao Sebastian Liao

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Department of English, NTNU


The extended, seemingly self-indulgent sex scenes in Ang Lee's Lust, Caution have generated rather unfavorable responses from both Chinese and Western critics. But this paper argues that these sex scenes are central to Ang Lee's project of interrogating Chineseness from a Taiwanese/diasporic Chinese position. Sex here is just a metaphor for a people-state relationship, which often approximates what we usually understand as "lust." The metaphor unfolds when Wang Jiazhi, abandoned by her biological father, embarks on a quest for a new Father while trying to understand her own femininity, a quest that leads to her involvement in a daring but reckless plan: to sleep with a major collaborator, Mr. Yi, in order to assassinate him. But the resultant misreading of lust as love on the part of Wang (and by extension "the people") is fatal. The romantic feelings she develops for Yi after he voluntarily reveals his vulnerability put her in a difficult situation: in order to love she has to "relinquish" her lover. By highlighting the fact that the people, symbolized by Wang, are bound to play the manipulated feminine role in their romance, as it were, with the state, this film criticizes that modern form of nationalism which is predicated on modernity. The twin target of Ang Lee's criticism—nationalism/ modernity—is embodied by Yi, an undercover communist and apparently a stauncher-than-usual nationalist, who ironically tries to serve the people by abusing them. Seeing that modern nationalism, presumably devoted to bringing modernity to the nation, has brought more suffering than good, Ang Lee suggests with this film that to outgrow their obsession with modernity, i.e., with "becoming modernized," the people need to become "modern subjects" as Wang has unwittingly done. And one can only do so by undergoing a Lacanian (and Freudian) Versagung or redoubled renunciation, in which what Lacan calls "subjective destitution" is experienced. Ang Lee's caution against "lust" is therefore