Starring: Wei Tang, Tony Leung, Joan Chen, Leehom Wang
Rated NC-17 for Some Explicit Sexuality
Ang Lee has never been what you'd call a "conventional filmmaker." Concentrating more on character and tone rather than plot or special effects, Lee has made a career out of flouting normal filmmaking conventions while at the same time respecting them. To put a finer point on it, he's a filmmaker, not a hack determined to bombard the ADD-crowd with as many "cool" images as possible (although he has a keen eye for beauty) or some geek who got lucky (Joss Whedon).
"Lust, Caution" is a WWII thriller, albeit a low-key one. Anyone expecting gunfights or a "bruised forearm movie," as the late great Roger Ebert called them, will be disappointed. This is a "slow burn" thriller that requires patience and dedication. You get what you put into it. Those who want the movies to do the thinking for them will be lost and bored.
Wong Chia Chi (Tang) is a student at Hong Kong University during World War II. She is recruited by Kuang Yu Min (Wang) to join his activist theater group. After their play is a roaring success, Kuang decides that they need to do more. His cousin knows a man named Mr. Yee (Leung), who, among other things, is selling out Chinese nationals to the Japanese occupiers. Kuang decides that he is a traitor and suggests to his theater group that they take it upon themselves to assassinate him. Every member of the group is given a new part to play, and Wong is now Mak Tai Tai, the wife of a businessman. But as she gets close to Mr. Yee, she falls for him, and he for her.
If this sounds similar, it's because Paul Verhoeven did the same thing in "Black Book" the year before. However, apart from the concept, they couldn't be two more different movies. Verhoeven's film was a real white-knuckler with some sensational action. By contrast, Lee's film is languidly paced. Lee wants to slowly seduce us with the story and the characters, and to be enraptured by the beauty of the images he and his cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto create and the score by Alexandre Desplat. On that level it's a success.
The film is also a success on the acting front. Just like in "Black Book," the film centers on a female spy. Here, she's played by then-newcomer Wei Tang. Tang was a model selected by Lee out of over 10,000 hopefuls, and it's a sparkling debut. The role of Wong Chia Chi is both emotionally and physically demanding; not only does she have to navigate the complexities of a woman who is in over her head and in love with the man she's trying to kill, she has to participate in some very graphic sex scenes while still remaining true to her character. Tang accomplishes this effortlessly; those who were unfortunate enough to sit through "Blackhat" this January will be surprised to see how good she is here.
Her co-star, Tony Leung, is something of an acting legend in China, although he is an unknown outside of the arthouse circuit (that's not necessarily his choice, since according to iMDb, he would love to work with Martin Scorcese). As the stone-faced Mr. Yee, Leung plays a man whose personality is predatory yet vulnerable. He wants to be seduced by Mak Tai Tai. Like his co-star, he participates in graphic sex scenes with no obvious qualms.
I liked how Lee explores how youthful idealism and political zeal can cause young men and women to do things they would otherwise never do. Without the war, these people would never do anything like this; at the most, they'd go to poetry slams or protests or something. But together and in this kind of situation, they enter into a dangerous game in which they are woefully unequipped to handle.
Considering its rarity and the dubious methods in which the MPAA doles out NC-17 ratings, it would be an incomplete review if I didn't discuss why the film received the "kiss of death" rating. One reason: the sex is really hardcore. S&M, positions that are definitely not "missionary," and lots of "thrusting." This is one of the few films that actually deserves the ultra-restrictive rating. That's probably why Focus Features declined to appeal the rating. As well they should have; this is a movie that's meant for adults in every element of its being.
At 2.5 hours, the film is too long, but the film looks so good and is so strongly acted that it's worth seeking out anyway.