Whatever the merits of his various films, you have to admire Ang Lee’s ability not to be pigeonholed as a filmmaker. There aren’t many mainstream filmmakers with as varied a résumé, including comic book movies (Hulk), martial arts (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), gloomy family dramas (The Ice Storm) and genre-bending love stories (Brokeback Mountain). Thus it’s probably no surprise that he seems perfectly comfortable handling this Chinese-language character study masquerading as a spy thriller.
Despite the large cast, this is basically the story of two people. In the late 1930s, Wong Chia Chi (first-time actress Wei Tang) is a young student living in Hong Kong, recruited by a patriotic group for a propaganda play. When they discover that a local official, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), is collaborating with the Japanese. They impetuously decide that their patriotic duty is to assassinate the man. Posing as Mak Tai Tai, the wife of a businessman, Wong Chia Chi proves adept at moving in Yee’s privileged circle and insinuating herself into his life. She almost has Yee where they need him, namely taking her as his mistress, when he suddenly moves his family back to Shanghai. Four years later, however, she is recruited by the actual resistance movement to continue her masquerade and help set up Yee to be killed.
This is one of few movies to be released in the U.S. recently with its NC-17 rating intact and Lust, Caution earns that rating fairly. Many will probably see the sex scenes in this movie as excessive (and they do make the average late-night Cinemax movie look an episode of 7th Heaven), but I would argue that Ang Lee knew what he was doing. These scenes are key to establishing the ambivalent relationship between the film’s two leads. Yee is clearly a sadist who gets his jolly by dominating people, both in bed and in his job of torturing political prisoners, but in the course of his vigorous sex with this young woman, we see the mask start to fall away and feelings for her show through. Likewise, Wong Chia Chi is clearly repelled by the man with whom she has the patriotic duty to share her bed, but she also manages to have some kind of feelings for him. These emotionally raw scenes are absolutely necessary to understand the decision made by these characters later in the story.
The film’s recreation of China before and during World War II is impressive, while the cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. The poster for this movie suggests the classic films of the forties and the look of the film carries this forward. This is literally one of those most beautiful movies I’ve seen recently, even when everybody keeps their clothes on. The performances, by both the leads and the large supporting cast, are also uniformly excellent.
This movie is obviously not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you want to take it in, I urge you to see the NC-17 theatrical cut and not the watered-down R-rated “Blockbuster Video” version that is also available on DVD. Seriously, if you’re offended by the uncut version, is the edited version going to be less of a turn-off?