Lust, Caution (2007) dir. Ang Lee
Starring: Tony Leung, Wei Tang, Joan Chen, Lee-Hom Wang
After the phenomenal success of “Brokeback Mountain” Ang Lee returned to his homeland to make another Chinese-Language film. His ability not only to move easily between genres, but different cultures and different languages is impressive. He scored with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, but unfortunately “Lust, Caution” is a miss.
The film is set in WWII-era Shanghai during Japanese occupation of China. Wong Chia Chi (Wei Tang) is an innocent and shy student attending University. To engage herself in social activities she joins a drama company at school. Within the company emerge the seeds of a revolutionary movement, one of many resistance groups being formed around the country. Chia and his friends unite to help free their suppressed citizens from Fascist rule. The group targets a high-ranking corrupt police official, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), for assassination. But it’s Chia who is charged with infiltrating his affluent family and courting him. Chia’s Mata-Hari alter ego is Mrs. Mak – who ingratiates herself with the family through a series of Mahjong Games (like “poker-night” for Chinese women).
In one of the most original scenes of the film Chia, who is a virgin, has to practice sex with one of her comrades. Soon the beautiful and confident Chia goes after Yee. Her longing glance turns into a torrid affair, which spans several years before the group has a chance to strike their blow. When the time comes Chia’s feelings may just stand in the way of her duties for the resistance.
The title is appropriate as the film weighs traditional wartime political intrigue with hot and steamy eroticism. Lee certainly does the steaminess right. Tang and Leung film three or four red-hot love scenes. In the unrated version of the film, full frontal is all over the place and in a few places some eye-opening hardcore shots are left in. Lee makes it all very sexy and tasteful and erotic.
Where the film is left dry is the espionage half of the story. There’s more than enough room in the 2 hr 40min running time to show us the intrigue, suspense and danger involved in Chia and Kwang’s spy games. Unfortunately these events are only talked about and never shown on screen. For example, Mr. Yee’s assistant informs him that his secret police raided several residence safe houses. Considering these safe houses involve the characters in the film, we should have seen these events. As well, Mr. Yee describes to Chia the ‘bloody activities’ he had to go through to get information from a detainee. It’s an emotional scene, which could have been made more powerful if we, or perhaps Chia, witnessed it.
Instead the film exists solely within the point of view either Yee or Chia. Though I respect Lee for his consistency in point of view and his concern for not making a ‘thriller’, I don’t think he gets the romantic story right either.
There are very little sparks between Yee and Chia. And for the entire film Chia gives in to Yee’s animalistic physical and sexual abuse. Like a sex worker, she serves his every fetish including extremely rough sex, bondage, hair-pulling, slapping etc. The fundamental error here is why Yee, who is so paranoid he carries around multiple bodyguards with him, wouldn’t suspect Chia as a spy? Surely no one would give in to such obscene sexual demands without pay or reciprocity? If Yee were a charming aristocrat or had a Stanley Kowalski-swagger, I might believe, but Leung portrays Lee with absolutely no passion, character, or likeable quality for Chia to cling onto. We are left with nothing but rough sex to bring the two together.
Perhaps Lee intended a bond to form through the unspoken longing glances between the two. This requires great leaps to fill in these large gaps. In fact there’s just too much leaping to do in order for “Lust, Caution” to come together completely. There are some beautiful moments dotted throughout, but not enough to sustain interest for such length of time.