Lust, Caution—do any two words define the central dichotomy of human existence more succinctly? No mere movie, perhaps, could live up to such a richly evocative title, and Variety’s review of Ang Lee’s new espionage melodrama—which won the top prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival, just two years after Lee’s Brokeback Mountain nabbed the same award—was only the first of many to complain that the film’s caution-to-lust ratio is less than favorable. Far too much has been made, hype-wise, of its explicit, few-holds-barred, NC-17 sex scenes, which Lee unleashes only after roughly two hours of minutely observed PG parrying; clearly, early viewers anticipated more heedless thrusting and fewer close-ups of mah-jongg tiles. Nor does it help that the film’s sleeping-with-the-enemy plot is nearly identical to that of Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, which is comparatively stupid but much more trashy, lurid fun. Still, if you can adjust your expectations a bit, and look at Lust, Caution as the Asian equivalent of a first-rate Merchant-Ivory picture—literate, resolutely old-fashioned, maybe a tad stodgy—you’ll find that its emotional power sneaks stealthily up on you.
Stealth and sneakiness happen to be the watchwords of Wang Jiazhi (newcomer Tang Wei), who, when we first meet her, in Japanese-occupied Shanghai circa the waning years of WWII, appears to be the indolent, glamorous young wife of a prosperous businessman. In the extended flashback that makes up most of the movie, however, we discover that Wang is actually a fiercely patriotic former drama student who’s volunteered to seduce high-ranking collaborator Mr. Yee (Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung, best known here from Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love and 2046), who’s reputed to be in charge of interrogations that double as murders. Since Mr. Yee is always closely guarded, both physically and emotionally, Wang’s fellow actor-radicals determine that their only shot at an assassination is to lure him into the sort of rash, reckless behavior characteristic of a torrid affair. Mr. Yee isn’t easily conquered, however, and when Wang finally does succeed in bedding him, she discovers—to her initial horror, then to her illicit pleasure—that his sexual appetites mirror his brutal politics.
If you spend the bulk of Lust, Caution impatiently awaiting the rough-and-tumble, as many critics seem to have done, you’re almost certain to be disappointed. Lee has always been more comfortable with passion stifled than passion expressed—hence the poignancy of Brokeback Mountain, with its doomed Marlboro Man yearning—and he seems acutely aware of that fact, here to the point of ludicrous overcompensation. While both Tang and Leung are gratifyingly full-frontal fearless, they’ve been shoved into positions so bizarrely contorted that you’re far too busy working out mental diagrams to get turned on. Nor can you appreciate the athleticism on an intellectual level, as an extension of the characters’ forbidden desire. All you can think is that there must be a less arduous way of getting Tab A in the general vicinity of Slot B. Clearly intended as the tempestuous culmination of Wang and Mr. Yee’s hazardous pas de deux, these scenes play more like the art-house version of the f/x set pieces in a Hollywood action flick.
The journey, however, turns out to be more compelling than the destination. Part of the reason why Lust, Caution feels strangely muted as a genre piece is because Lee seems more interested in the mechanics of deceit than in its dread ramifications. Like any dutiful unmarried woman of her era, Wang is a virgin; since she’s supposed to be married, however, an intact hymen would amount to her death warrant, as would her obvious inexperience in the sack. Her ritual deflowering, performed with visible awkwardness by one of her drama-nerd cohorts, is just one of many frank sacrifices Wang must make in pursuit of what is ultimately an abstract ideal. It’s grim, procedural business like this—there’s also an astonishingly messy murder midway through the picture, in which the victim simply refuses to die no matter how many times he’s stabbed—that makes Wang’s ultimate decision regarding Mr. Yee more terrible than romantic, and makes Mr. Yee’s ultimate decision regarding Wang more romantic than terrible. In the end, both are pawns, wretched victims of the title’s eternally warring impulses.
Tony Leung, Tang Wei, Joan Chen
Directed by Ang Lee