|The affair between Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) and Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) forces them both to examine what they value.|
Lust/Caution opens briefly in Shanghai in 1942. Here, we see Wong Chia Chi (operating under the alias "Mrs. Mak") playing Mahjong with the wife of Mr. Yee, the head of the secret police, and other members of the Chinese upper-class. After an encounter with the imposing Mr. Yee, where it's clear that the two share a certain secret intimacy, Mrs. Mak excuses herself and slips away to a café. There she signals to her fellow resistance fighters that the time to strike is at hand.
With the promise of intrigue fresh in our minds, the film flashes backwards four years, right as China's army is crumbling in the face of aggressive Japanese conquest. Our heroine (played with fraught intensity by newcomer Tang Wei) is an aspiring actress attending college in Hong Kong. Despite the realities of the war around her, she remains hopeful that her father--who had moved to London years earlier--will eventually send for her to join him. While there, she meets a young man, Kuang Yu Min, a charismatic idealist who recruits her for his propagandist plays supporting the Chinese resistance and lamenting the hefty toll the war exacts on countless innocent families.
Soon, drawn by his fervor, Wong joins Kuang's amateur assassination plot against Mr. Yee. Wong finds herself acting an entirely different kind of role--that of the entrapping temptress. Catching his attention is no simple feat, though Wong is intelligent, clever and proves to be a competent actress. After a long period of waiting, making progress in haphazard fits and starts, they finally attract Mr. Yee's interest. But just as they near a chance to achieve their goal, Mr. Yee is suddenly recalled to Shanghai and the group must disband, their scheme unrealized.
Several years later, Wong again encounters Kuang, who now works for the organized Chinese resistance. Once more, he recruits her for the spy effort. Having already gained the trust of Mr. Yee and his household, Wong is uniquely poised to coordinate a synchronized strike against Mr. Yee, who in the passing years has been promoted to chief of the secret police. After re-insinuating herself into his life with surprising ease, Wong and Yee are soon entwined in a torrid, intemperate affair. As the weeks and months pass, and a plan of action begins to develop (centered around a jewelry store where Mr. Yee has an exorbitant ring crafted for Wong), Wong begins to fall in love with Mr. Yee, or rather, she begins to feel possessed by his callous dominance and questions whether, when the moment comes, she is truly prepared to destroy him.
Ang Lee came to this picture fresh off his Oscar success for the glacial "gay-cowboy" drama Brokeback Moutain, and there are a few notable similarities between the two. The characters at the center engage in an illicit--and quite graphic--affair, the nature of which would be sure to destroy both their lives if discovered. Both movies are slow, often self-indulgent efforts that develop their somber themes at a torpid pace. Both focus heavily on their atmosphere, Lust, Caution's one of paranoia and fear, uncertainty and salaciousness. Ang Lee is a master of manipulating the mood for his films. Through the use of deft and dark photography--which captures the sense of an era bristling with unspoken anxieties and unsure loyalties-- and through the simplistic, but emotionally resonant music--which evokes the overwhelming loneliness of these two lovers--this world is thoroughly and painstakingly developed.
In fact, Ang Lee is devoted to the atmosphere to a fault. One can only withstand so many endless Mahjong games, so many glances laden with two or three different meanings before wishing Lee would just get on with the story... as it really is a gripping one. As such, the difference of pace between the two halves is noticeably jarring. The first is lazily, languidly balanced. Never in a hurry, Lee is satisfied to let the camera linger on seemingly inconsequential moments. This can be haunting and lyrical in spots, but thoroughly un-engaging in many, many others. The relationship between the idealistic Kuang and the naive Wong both benefits and suffers from this approach, as while the fact of their mutually unrequited affections is so obvious to the audience that their inept, quickly strangled courtship may strain the audience's patience, it also sets the foundation for one of the latter half's most gut-wrenching moments.
Once the second half gets rolling, and the passions held back in the first half are finally unleashed, this film really begins to smolder. Central to this shift are the several sex scenes which, contrary to many mainstream American productions, serve as far more than mere window-dressing displaying the attractive co-leads. They instead serve to explore the characters of Mr. Yee and Wong as well as to develop their unique, carnal relationship. Tony Leung, who cut his acting chops on moody romances under the ethereal direction of Wong Kar Wai, wields sex like a weapon, using it to bludgeon his partner into submission. His bloodlust for torturing and executing prisoners is only alluded to, but in the couplings between these two, his perverse hungers are made perfectly clear. Mr. Yee is unlike the quietly alienated protagonists of Leung's past. In his soul is rage, a seething, frothing maw of malcontent that can only be satisfied by dishing out his anger to others. He is forced to momentarily re-examine his cruelty when confronted by someone who takes the punishment he recklessly discharges, and yet remains.
Ang Lee deserves credit for not backing down from the MPAA's NC-17 rating, as this film is made by these sex scenes, which lay the characters not only physically but emotionally bare and bruised. Be warned, as the first encounter between Mr. Yee and Wong can only be described as rape. Understandably, this is not something everyone will stomach watching. But Ang Lee's meticulous attention to little details serves him well in these scenes. As we see Wong slowly begin to lose herself more and more in Mr. Yee's unslaking tumescent force, as she begins to yield to him and he to her, we know that they are beginning to possess one another at a level deeper than either is cognizant of.
In the end, it's unfortunate that Lee suffers from the need to make all his films at least 140 minutes long. Despite the epic backdrop of war and intrigue, the focus of this story is more intimate. And with such chemistry immediately apparent between the two leads, Lee's overbearing cinematic trappings are ill-judged and saddles the film with unnecessary lulls when it takes all too long for the poignant, unconventional romance to begin. Regardless, while the film remains a bit of an albatross--large and majestic looking from afar while perhaps being too ungainly for the real world--Lee's commitment to keeping the emotional integrity of his character's intact is something to be applauded.