BY YVONNE TEW
Starring: Tony Leung. Tang Wei
Director: Ang Lee
Ang Lee’s latest movie, Lust, Caution, exhibits considerable lust and much less caution. One leaves the cinema with mixed emotions and the feeling that this was a movie that was almost great; it comes so close that I feel that I ought to love it, I want to love it, but I merely feel that I ought to want to love it. Ang Lee delivers several poignant moments in this story of tortured love and espionage set in Hong Kong and Japanese-occupied Shanghai during the 1940s, but the movie would have been more potent if its scenes had been crystallized into a shorter version, instead of its prolonged 158 minutes.
The intensity of emotions needed for a film that explores the complexity of human psychology and interactions in a China seething under Japanese occupation requires careful casting. In this, Ang Lee succeeds in his choice of seasoned actor Tony Leung, as the ruthless government official collaborating with the Japanese, opposite newcomer Tang Wei, as the Resistance spy whose job it is to ensnare him. Tony Leung manages to portray a brutal yet tortured Mr. Yee through his silence as much as his words; he controls and represses his emotions, conveying his brooding menace through his eyes and expressionless features. However, the real credit goes to Tang Wei, who gives an impressive debut performance: she switches between being Wong Chia-Chi, the sweet virginal student, and Mak Tai Tai, the luring mistress, in a role that demands both nuance and intensity. Wang Leehom plays the idealistic student who first convinces Wong Chia-Chi to fight against traitors like Mr. Yee, but his Asian pop star good looks appear almost out of place in the bleakness of the surroundings, even though his chief function is to look in longing despair at Wong throughout the movie.
Ang Lee, Oscar winner director of Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, uses his noted storytelling abilities to unfold the drama through shifting scenes between the mahjong-clicking domestic world of the rich tai tai’s (in which an entirely believable Joan Chen plays Mr. Yee’s wife) and the brutal outside world of survival and violence. The sacrificial patriotism, almost to the point of wasted foolishness, of the Chinese students attempting to be amateur spies is most eloquently illustrated when Wong Chia-Chi goes through her first sexual encounter in order to prepare for her role: the scene is simultaneously so devoid of, and so pregnant with, emotion that it is almost painful to watch.
But, it is Ang Lee’s unflinchingly graphic portrayal of the later sex scenes between the characters played by Tony Leung and Tang Wei that earned the movie its NC-17 rating. However, Ang Lee is right that the sex scenes (or, at least, the first two out of the three) are necessary to show the complex way in which the characters relate to each other. The sadomasochism and violence shown by Mr. Yee in the first scene is crucial in illustrating his character: it is one of dominance and, strangely, vulnerability in the bitter times that he lives in. He has to create pain in her in order to “feel alive”, as Wong Chia-Chi realizes. The eroticization of dominance in the movie occurs as she begins to be drawn towards this man who uses her – uses her almost because he needs her. The characters are most brutally honest in the intensity of their sexual relations, and the subliminal desperation in the scenes make them more agonizing than erotic to watch.
And, yet, for all its potential to be grippingly powerful and evocative, the movie never quite rises to the level one feels it could have achieved. It may be that Ang Lee’s passion for storytelling and cinematography is both his greatest strength, and his Achilles heel. His attention to symbolism and detail create certain beautiful cinematographic moments, such as the blood-red lipstick mark Wong Chia-Chi leaves on her cup at the beginning and end of the movie. But this same obsession with detail results in a tiresome over-abundance of the camera focusing on Tony Leung’s brooding face or characters exchanging meaningful looks and lingering on significant objects (enough of the ring rocking back and forth already!). The first half of the movie flows absorbingly, but the second half begins to drag. Despite being based on a short story by Shanghai-born Eileen Chang, the movie clocks in at a lengthy 158 minutes. By contrast, Ang Lee’s manages to adapt Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility in 135 minutes.
If Ang Lee had exercised slightly more restraint, and caution, in the filming of Lust, Caution its impact may have been much more powerful.
Rating: * * 1/2