Thursday, November 15, 2007

Lust, Caution (2007)

Lust, Caution could be the title of most Ang Lee movies, from Brokeback Mountain to The Ice Storm; hell, even The Hulk. But it is the title of his latest movie, and it is indeed an appropriate one, seeing as how it is filled with human interaction that is both lusty and cautious. One could argue that the title also refers to Lee's approach to the material, and it is this reason that film succeeds in some ways, and fails in others.

Lee and co-writers James Schamus and Wang Hui Ling's story begins in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in 1942, at the mahjong table of a wife of a powerful Chinese bureaucrat (Joan Chen). Her husband, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), enters and greets his wife, but we can't help notice his eyes keep falling on a different woman, Mrs. Mak (Tang Wei). Soon Mrs. Mak exits the game suddenly, and goes to a cafe, where she places a code-laden phone call. Then the movie flashes back to a few years before, and we learn the true nature of Mr. Yee and Mrs. Mak's relationship. Mrs. Mak is, in fact, a talented young actress named Wong Chia Chi, whose theater buddies get a little too drunk on the patriotic high of their pro-Chinese play and decide that simply inspiring their countrymen is no longer satisfying enough. They learn the troupe's director Kuang (Wang Lee Hom) has a connection to a traitor named Yee who is colluding with the Japanese. On their summer off from school, the group will move into a nearby house and set themselves up as wealthy industrialists and their affiliated servants and drivers, and try to worm their way inside Yee's home and social circle in order to kill him. Wthe newly-minted Mrs. Mak catches Mr. Yee's eye, she needs to play along or risk blowing the subterfuge.

As you can see, it's not an easy story to synopsize, and that reflects in the actual telling of the story as well, which is almost 160 minutes long. Though some have criticized the movie's length and pacing, I find it difficult to theoretically fault Lee on either count. Much of the movie's core is the arduous grind of this sort of mass deception and the incredible emotional toll that inflicts on Wong, even before her relationship with Yee becomes sexual and even sadomasochistic. Wong's trip to the world of Yee lasts far longer than it ever was intended to, and that, too, probably plays a role in drawing out the action as long as Lee does.

What faults the film does contain (and I say that while also adding that I would give the film a mild positive recommendation) are more a result of Lee's tentative filmmaking rather than the tentative characters themselves. Emotionally, Lust, Caution's a bit too one-note; wall-to-wall plaintive longing of the sort that's marked a lot of Lee's films. Even the sequences that should be exciting, big acts of violence, intense depictions of lovemaking, are bummers. After three hours, that adds up. That's a lot of bleakness for one movie.

The movie is the sum of the relationship between Mak and Yee, but we only really get to understand the former half of that pair because the story is told from her perspective and regardless of how intimate they become, Yee remains a mystery to her. A great deal of his character, and the complexity of Wong's task, lies in the fact that Yee trusts no one — and so he never opens up to anyone on camera, and thus never opens up to us. I don't know how well we understand him by the end of the film as a result; in all of his extended sequences, Tony Leung has all of his clothes off and the physical nudity doesn't particularly translate to emotional nudity. That air of detachment is of course part of Lee's plan, and while I understand it to a degree, the result leaves me somewhat disconnected from and unsatisfied by one of his two main characters.

The movie is rated NC-17 for the sexuality which is largely restricted to the film's final act, and doesn't add up to more than maybe four scenes (four very graphic scenes, it should be said). Once again, I see Lee's intentions but find myself unhappy with the execution; these sequences reveal all the complexities of the power dynamics in the relationship and the ambiguous way they're shot forces the audience to consider whether Wong despises Yee or loves him, whether she hates having to have sex with him or secretly loves it. And yet, I can't help but think all the thrusting and funky positions (that crab-looking one just looks painful) is a bit indulgent too; surely there is a way to express the rawness of their sex without quite so much explicitness.

Still, I admired parts of the movie, and particularly the two lead performances. Tony Leung is aging in a way that flatters his face; he's retaining his good looks but there's a hardness I hadn't noticed there before, an added element of menace which serves this character perfectly. And the film would make a fine double bill with Paul Verhoeven's own 2007 sexy WWII spy thriller Black Book. I prefer Verhoeven's interpretation of this theme: lusty, but less cautious.


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