Reviewed by Sam Hatch
With his penchant for spinning short stories into sprawling, emotional cinematic canvases, director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) again turns his gaze towards the East for Lust, Caution. Adapted by Lee mainstay James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang from Eileen Chang's novella of the same name, Lust, Caution is yet another example of the Taiwanese director's ability to shift gears and genres with ease. In this case he's abandoned the rolling hills of Wyoming in favor of wartime Shanghai and Hong Kong during the 1940's. There's still that soupcon of forbidden love, though most of it's buried beneath a tangled web of espionage and brutally energetic copulation.
The film begins in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, as a quartet of well-to-do wives chat ceaselessly during a marathon game of Mah Jong. Don't expect all of the information that's thrown about to sink in at first, as Lee and company spare no time in allowing the audience to catch up. What does cut through the small talk like a shining beacon is that there's obviously something behind the furtive glances shared between the shy player Mrs. Mak (Tang Wei giving a wonderfully layered performance) and her host's husband, the enigmatic Mr. Yee (Tony Leung of Hard Boiled and Hero fame). It's all the more interesting that subsequently the young Mrs. Mak seems to call out a hit on the man following a long session of shadow play at a local café.
Thus the film quickly and subtly jumps back in time to the late 30s as Mrs. Mak appears as a young university student named Wong Chia Chi. She's quickly pulled into the magnetic fold of Wang Leehom's Kuang Yu Min, a politically enthusiastic youth who channels his frustrations into dramatic theater. Soon a group of likeminded students begin touring Hong Kong with their anti-Japanese message guised as popular entertainment. When the emotionally charged finale to their play inspires the audience to leap to their feet with cheers of nationalist pride, Kuang begins to dream of bigger fish.
The first catch being the supremely cautious Mr. Yee, a volatile man who tortures rebels and sells out his own people to the Japanese. Or so Kuang says. The Yee we meet is decidedly paranoid about his safety, but it's not until much later that we find evidence of his feral nature. In order to gain access to the inner sanctum of Yee, the theater group moves to Hong Kong full time, spending one member's money on an expensive flat posing as the home of the nonexistent Mr. and Mrs. Mak. It's the latter character who charms the target and his wife, and she is swiftly embraced as a shopping partner and fellow gaming enthusiast.
There's an unseen eye or two focused on just about every character, but Yee's primary focus is on the unusually confident Mrs. Mak. (And on her figure as well.) She's the only person who shows no fear in the gaze of the beast, and following a quiet dinner together she's convinced that she can infiltrate his circle as a lover. Things never pan out quite as expected, for while there is an eventual murder, it's an unexpected killing bred from necessity. Lee stages it with unflinching realism, as young members of this pack of human wolves repeatedly stick a man with a straight razor and await his Caesar-like demise.
There's also the highly un-erotic sex scenes shared between Wong and one of her fellow rebels (who only likes shagging hookers). It's meant as a training exercise prior to her expected union with Yee, and it's another fascinating moment in the evolution of her character. Early on as the plot is being seeded, she quite truthfully avows that she is not afraid to commit to the planned murder of a man. She's not frightened of what should terrify her, and when she later returns to Shanghai and laments her life it's not because she's been traumatized by the events in Hong Kong – it's because she misses them. And furthermore, there's the unsettling notion that she misses the target himself - Yee.
It's easy to understand the allure of their failed coup. The stage-trained rebels were essentially putting on a play during the entire scenario – pretending to be people they weren't and spending money that wasn't theirs. When Kuang suddenly reappears in Wong's life, offering her a second chance at the gig, she can't wait to return to the thrill of the hunt. The remainder of the film is an exploration of her loss of innocence and subsequent maturation, as it's a sobering wake up call to the real world sorrows of dedicating your life to an illegal cause.
Kuang and Wong find themselves under the employ of the real people's revolution, in which there is no room for youthful optimism. Wong is told to readopt her stage name of Mrs. Mak and re-infiltrate the lair of the lion, which she carries out with ease. Yet when she finally lures Yee into an extramarital liaison, it's not quite what she expects. Just as her favorite big-screen romances are routinely disrupted at the movie theater by propaganda films, her mousy attempts at flirtation are shredded by Yee's punishing, frothing rendition of 'lovemaking'.
Yet in spite of the animosity this encounter arouses, both creatures are repeatedly drawn to one another. It's during his time with Mrs. Mak (primarily spent fornicating in every which way possible – think of the puppet sex from Team America: World Police, but for real!) that he discovers something more within the monster. It's in this segment that Tang Wei's performance is truly sublime, as she becomes an utterly conflicted character, experiencing a world wherein the line between hatred and love becomes irreparably blurred. Likewise, the old thespian master Leung gives a knockout performance derived less from dialogue than a series of gravitas-soaked stares.
The locations also have that perfect level of verisimilitude, and one feels right at home amidst the multicultural melting pot of 1940s China. While the color palette (lensed by Rodrigo Prieto) is more muted than one would suspect (there are no garish reds on display), there's still plenty of detail in the numerous shadows. Ang Lee is obviously enamored of nature as a storytelling device (see The Ice Storm for a start), and apart from the usual bevy of rainstorms and the like he routinely uses the sounds of the natural world's creatures to accent just about every scene in Lust, Caution. Birds and crickets all donate a sort of background commentary on these activities of the human kind.
The sound mix is phenomenal, and while the film is largely derived of quiet discussions there are many other sonic elements that bring it all to life. I was also highly appreciative of composer Alexandre Desplat's haunting score. There will be many complaints about the film's long running time and slow pace, but as I've said recently in other forums Lust, Caution is a film that you have to dissolve yourself into like a sugar cube over absinthe. The emotional turmoil of these characters is so involving in itself that the addition of bombastic external events would surely only dilute the purity of this wonderful film. It's one of Ang Lee's best, and one of the best films of the year.