Ang Lee is one of the most versatile filmmakers working today. The Oscar winner has gone from the martial arts action of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to the comic book adventure Hulk to the gay romance Brokeback Mountain. You never know what heíll do next. For his latest, Lust, Caution, Lee returns to his roots, making a film in Chinese with English subtitles. His subject matter this time is reflected in the title; the movie pivots around a character who yearns to satisfy his lust for a young woman, but potential threats to his life cause him to be weary and distrustful of others. The story follows what happens as tries to walk that tightrope without falling.
The central character, however, is the lust object. She is Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei), a young woman who falls in with a group of revolutionaries during the Chinese occupation of Shanghai in 1942. Assuming the fake name of Mrs. Mak, she is introduced to society and put in a situation where she can befriend the wife of a Chinese collaborator whom the revolutionaries have declared a ďtraitor.Ē He is Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), a cold, hesitant man who nevertheless develops an eye for his wifeís new mah-jongg partner.
Eventually, Mrs. Mak takes advantage of his attraction at the urging of her cohorts. They want her to seduce him, but since sheís inexperienced, one of them has to teach her the art of lovemaking. It only comes in partially handy, as Mr. Yee prefers his sex with an edge of danger and violence. Once their physical affair begins, Mrs. Mak waits for the group to have the opportunity to kill her new lover. Various obstacles prevent it from happening quickly, meaning that the fake affair must drag on. The longer this happens, the more her own life is in danger if Mr. Yee finds out whatís happening. And since heís on the trail of the revolutionaries, that becomes a real possibility.
Since its film festival premiere, Lust, Caution has gained notoriety for its graphic sex scenes, which have earned the film an NC-17 rating. Itís worth pointing out that, while undeniably explicit, the sexuality is justified from a storytelling point of view for two reasons. First, it is used to establish something about Mr. Yee. The kind of rough sex he enjoys correlates to the kind of angry, controlling person he is, and knowing this makes him more fearsome. Second, the sex serves to put Mrs. Mak into a situation that is emotionally complicated. Her mission is to lure this man into a position where he can be assassinated Ė and she is really intent on doing just that Ė yet there is also an emotional connection between them, no matter how distasteful. The longer it goes on, the harder it is for her to emotionally distance herself from him. The sexuality in the film is used for plot and character development and it makes you understand the storyís resolution much more clearly. (Needless to say, Iím not spoiling it.)
Those scenes take up only a few minutes of a movie that runs two hours and 38 minutes. The excessive running time is really the only notable flaw in Lust, Caution. Although the epic length allows for some things to be carefully established in the first half that pay off in the second, I still think the film as a whole would have been a tad stronger had it been tightened a little.
For a while, I wasnít even sure I was going to like the movie because it seemed slow, but I did because this is a really compelling story once it ramps up. Here are two characters thrown into unthinkable circumstances together. Mrs. Mak is forced to be intimate with a man whose very being she loathes. Letting on to that fact would endanger her own life, so she must pretend to have feelings for him. Mr. Yee, on the other hand, is driven by his lust for this woman, and his lust is not pretty. He has no idea that itís all a set-up, although he does have awareness that his life in generally in danger. We also get the feeling that he has some self-loathing over his own sexual proclivities. Much time is spent showing how the two navigate these morally murky waters.
Lust, Caution is a beautiful film in so many ways. The cinematography, set design, and costumes are all gorgeous, as are the location settings. Tang Wei and Tony Leung Chiu-wai both give very nuanced performances that draw us into the human element of the story. I also have a lot of admiration for the way in which Ang Lee tells the story. He largely avoids moralizing. Mr. Yee and Mrs. Mak are both flawed characters who do things we donít agree with, yet we care about them both in spite of it. That makes the story even more tragic.
Itís probably the sex that will most draw peopleís interest, though. To my eyes, this is how sexuality should be used on screen Ė as a way of deepening the themes and adding something to our understanding of the charactersí psychology. Itís not exploitive or gratuitous. Truth be told, itís not even hot. But it is essential. Many filmmakers would have toned it down to get a softer rating. The inclination to do that is perfectly understandable. Ang Lee, however, has shown that sometimes art has to be bold. Because he presents the sexuality as graphically as he does, Lust, Caution becomes much richer and more meaningful than it would have been otherwise. His film demonstrates that there is a direct connection between the body and the soul, and when one is in jeopardy, so is the other.
( 1/2 out of four)
Lust, Caution is rated NC-17 for explicit sexuality. The running time is 2 hours and 38 minutes.
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