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Directed By: Ang Lee
Written By: James Schamus, Hui-Ling Wang
Starring: Tony Leung, Wei Tang, Joan Chen, Lee-Horn Wang
Running Time: 147 minutes
Rated R for strong sexual content and a scene of brutal violence (edited version).
If I had to describe the films of Ang Lee in one word it would be “passionate.” He is passionate about story, about character, about emotion. His new film, Lust, Caution, is his first return to making a Chinese-language film in many years and in it he shows his passion for his country … his roots. Based upon the writings of Eileen Chang, Lust, Caution is a confidently directed espionage thriller but is possessed with an overbearing desire to push the envelope of decency.
The film takes place during the Japanese occupation Shanghai during World War II. Wong Chia Chi is as a freshman at university when she meets Kuang Yu Min, a fellow student who has started a drama society for the purpose of boosting morale and patriotism. Wong becomes the leading female member of the troupe as she and Kuang perform dramatic odes to their homeland for packed houses of oppressed Chinese. Led by Kuang, the group of radical actors assembles a group of students to carry out a far-reaching and zealous plan to assassinate a foremost Japanese collaborator named Mr. Yee, a man they view as a traitor to their homeland. For the purposes of this plan, Wong transforms herself into Mrs. Mak in an attempt to gain Mr. Yee’s trust. She befriends his wife and plans to become Mr. Yee’s mistress. The danger lies when the passion between Yee and Wong grows to an uncontrollable level, automatically raising the stakes on both fronts.
Wei Tang plays Wong Chia Chia and makes it hard to believe that Lust, Caution is her first screen performance. The film is all her story, told at different times in the character’s life. Tang is the only actress playing Wong, but at times it looks like it may be someone else. Her facial expressions make all the difference; sometimes playfully innocent and at other times knowingly passionate. Tony Leung as Mr. Yee is the best performer here, though. Playing a man whose pure nature is evil, he manages to make Mr. Yee a compassionate character. He never makes us feel as if we should pardon his actions, but there are many times when his face makes the audience think twice.
One of the most fascinating things about this film is how the plot develops not as much through events, but through looks and glances. A face is worth more than any amount of words in an Ang Lee film and he draws much of his inspiration in this area from Ingmar Bergman (Lee’s introduction on the Criterion edition of The Virgin Spring is testament to this). There is a scene in the first half of the film where Mr. Yee takes Wong Chia Chia out to dinner. It is a remarkable scene that is almost like a three act play in its development. The connection between the two characters grows exponentially with each look. It’s a powerful feat of acting from Tony Leung and Wei Tang, but is also a testament to Lee’s sensitive direction.
The unedited version of Lust, Caution received the enigmatic NC-17 rating from the MPAA because of its explicit sex scenes (an R-rated version was edited from the original for DVD release). Ang Lee will be the first to say that the explicit sex scenes in Lust, Caution were included for the purposes of “pushing the envelope.” In other interviews he says that with the whole film he wanted to show in full detail the passion and emotion behind the story. These seem like two very different motivations. For a hundred years the goal of narrative storytelling has been to manipulate reality in order to provide the illusion of the real. Lee’s directorial choices for the sexual scenes skirt this line so much that they become unwatchable, at least for me. The scenes alienate the audience to an extent that it becomes hard to concentrate on the main story being told.
Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee’s last film) and Lust, Caution could not be more different from eachother when it comes to setting, but they do share a common thematic thread: the equation of lust with love. In Brokeback Mountain, two men go up to the mountains and discover a burning passion for eachother that ultimately results in heartbreak and loss. It cannot be said if Ang Lee’s purpose behind the film was to show this, but it is an easy conclusion to make. Lust, Caution faces the same problem when it equates lust with love. Clearly the connection between Wong Chia Chi and Mr. Yee is not one of deep-seated care for eachother, but one born out of Chia’s starved passion and as an extension of Mr. Yee’s sadistically evil nature. Although these motivations are obvious, by the end of the film Lee would have us believe that this was love. The achingly beautiful imagery of the film cannot hide the gaping, hollow logic backing the ideas.
Ang Lee has established a phenomenal team of artists from all over the world for Lust, Caution and each do their part to make the film as immersive of an experience as possible. Lee’s direction is calculated and confident, Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is appropriately evocative, and Alexandre Desplat’s score is gorgeous. It’s sad that a film filled with such beauty and passion must ultimately be so empty.