LUST, CAUTION review
Although Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” is only now going into wide release in the United States, much has already been said about the prestigious director’s latest film. Predictably, most of the fleeting attention has flown to the very graphic sex scenes, despite the fact that they don’t occur for quite a while, and on the whole, don’t add up to a great deal of the film’s 157 minute running time. More astute observers have covered even that fact. What hasn’t been said so loudly and so often is that “Lust, Caution” is most effective as a meditative tale of the personal cost of life as a female spy (Tang Wei). But this is not an NC-17 rated James Bond movie. True to Ang Lee’s previous filmography of angst-ridden stories of feminine despair (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, “The Ice Storm”), this entry unravels its protagonist in the most elegant of settings, in a telling so fused with dignity, you can practically see his collection of past awards just off-frame. The trouble this time is that Lee, apparently cashing in his obligatory post-“Brokeback” ticket to do whatever he wants, seems completely absorbed in his own hype. In that sense, it could be thought of as Ang Lee’s “Gangs of New York” or “The Serpent’s Egg”.
The quick and over-simplified version: Based upon a short story by Chinese author Eileen Chang, “Lust, Caution” is set in Shanghai during the Japanese occupancy of the Second World War. Tang Wei plays Wong Chia Chi, a young, naïve theater student who gets caught up in a patriotic student rebellion that evolves into an assassination attempt. Years go by as the assassination plot falls apart and is resurrected, based primarily upon Wong Chia Chi’s established connection with the target, Mr. Yee, played by the incomparable Tony Leung. Yee is a traitor to China, and a powerful ally to the invading Japanese, and therefore must be eliminated. It is Wong’s duty, being a female spy, to use sex the way male spies use guns, as an ultimate means to death. With her staggering pure beauty, she is to ensnare Yee into a moment of weakness so that the resistance may strike. Only, she knows not when or where, and is emotionally worn down more and more with each pelvic thrust. It’s a long, slow fall of her heart and her humanity as we watch her go from virginal patriot to callused broken soul. Newcomer Tang carries this aspect of the film with remarkable courage.
WWII-era Shanghai is recreated in painstaking detail, right down to the vintage movie posters for “Destiny Rides Again” and Hitchcock’s “Suspicion”; Alexandre Desplat’s score is memorable, if a little overly refined. The main problem with “Lust, Caution” is that the screenplay by James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang goes out of its way to dwell, dwell, dwell on the slowly unfolding plight of our heroine, when it is apparent that Lee’s primary interest here is the sex buried well into Act II, and its devastating effects. The result is a self-absorbed mandarin-language prestige art film in the very familiar Ang Lee mold. “Lust, Caution” is at times a long haul for all it offers, and a definite step down from “Brokeback Mountain”, but somehow, also worthy of the attention being bestowed upon it – if only in a fleeting way.
- Jim Tudor