Judge Brett Cullum wonders if anyone is up for a three-hour long laborious round of strip mahjongg?
Are a man and woman really a needle and thread?
Ang Lee is a director who concentrates on forbidden love and the consequences of stifling our passion or swallowing emotions. His films have always revolved around these themes, whether it's sexual repression in white suburbs for The Ice Storm, kung fu hearts broken on wires and fighting each other in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or even the repressed anger that forces Bruce Banner to become the Hulk. Perhaps his most noted portrait of the danger of bottling up love came with the Oscar sensation around Brokeback Mountain. So it makes perfect sense that a follow-up film would be about a beautiful spy who seduces and falls for her target in the lush espionage tale Lust, Caution. Like most Lee movies it is a beautifully photographed, languidly paced film, and one that earned an NC-17 rating in its original incarnation. The DVD comes in two versions, and this review concentrates on the NC-17 edition, which is the director's preferred cut of the film.
Facts of the Case
It's all about a girl in occupied China during World War II, when the British and the Japanese controlled the major cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai. She lives alone, as her father is in England and her mother has passed away. At university, she becomes part of a political theatre troupe that produces propaganda plays that inspire their audiences to consider taking action. The actors decide to do something even more radical and convince the girl that she must pose as a wealthy socialite to entrap a man who is high up in the puppet government created by the Japanese. She befriends the political leader's wife, and eventually seduces her target. Her role requires her to do things she could never imagine, and as the mission demands more of her, it begins to shatter her identity.
The movie is a long meditation on war, what we expect of women during war, and the effects of being something you are not when the disguise takes over to become more real than your true self. This is heady material, and Lee constructs a beautiful film using great actors from Taiwan and China. It has Oscar nominee written all over it, but it was disqualified from being Taiwan's official entry for the Academy Award because it had an international cast and crew, making it problematic for it to be labeled as from one specific country of origin. Yet it is as powerful as Brokeback Mountain and shares common themes. Primarily, this story paints the heroine as someone who comes alive when she is given the assignment to seduce the enemy. At first it seems like a game, but as she gets to know her target, real feelings begin to conflict inside her. The spy becomes a woman who fears that when it comes time to offer up her villainous paramour for assassination, she may want to hesitate. To make matters worse the sex is rough and sadistic, mirroring the man's real life actions, but she is starting to crave that attention. It's a love that can only end with one of them dead, and it's going to scar the surviving party forever.
The cast is sublime and consists of brave newcomers to the screen as well as respected legends of Chinese cinema. Wei Tang is a newcomer without any prior film credits who takes on the lead role of Wong Chia Chi, the young novice spy who has gone farther into the network than any other resistance operative. She is torn by what her assignment requires, and Wei Tang is impressively beautiful and believable in every moment. She beat out tens of thousands of other actors to get the part. Tony Leung Chiu Wai (2046) plays mostly heroes in his homeland of China, but here he crackles with intense energy as the target bad guy who is sadistic and cruel, yet charming. Joan Chen (Twin Peaks) plays the wife of Mr. Yee, and she turns in her usually strong performance. Pop singer Lee-Hom Wang plays the young leader of the resistance, and there is no trace of his teen idol roots in his tender performance. These actors look period perfect, and the world they create teems with authenticity of the Shanghai and Hong Kong from 1938 to 1942. Ang Lee keeps them mainly constrained, tight lipped, and curt with each other for most of the running time. He saves the fireworks for the truly dramatic scenes, but they are primarily reserved for the last act's climax.
Technically, Ang Lee has surpassed himself, and his usual production team composes a breathtaking portrait of an almost forgotten time. The art direction delivers a lush and supple recreation of the era that covers pre-revolutionary and occupied China. Several of the Shanghai street sets were considered some of the largest made for a movie in China, and they capture the pre-Communist era perfectly. The costumes are wonderfully executed, adding to Wong's transformation to a graceful woman of leisure. The photography sings out with swooping crane moves to punch up the dramatic story. Scoring remains operatic, but is this time a full orchestra as compared with Lee's previous use of mournful guitars. Ang Lee knows how to craft a handsome movie, and few directors can match his eye for detail and how to handle sensitive material. The craftsmanship on display here is unparalleled, and it's interesting to note how far Chinese filmmakers have come in creating films notable for their artisan aspects.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Anyone expecting a lurid espionage thriller along the lines of Paul Verhoeven's Black Book will be disappointed, because this one takes its time to get moving. This is not a fast-paced movie, nor are the NC-17 sex scenes all that shocking in what they reveal in pushing the boundaries of cinema and skin. The main objection of the American MPAA was that the scenes were rough physically and slightly abusive, and it was a woman who was being hurt. They are not pornographic, and they advance the story a good deal. Even though there isn't the lurid sensibility of Verhoeven, Lee does manage to do what the Dutch director did in Basic Instinct by making love scenes suspenseful, with the viewer wondering how they will end. There are very graphic moments to be sure, but they are there to inform us how the characters feel rather than stimulate on a more primal level. You will find yourself curiously looking at the faces more than anything else to see how each party is marked emotionally. The violence of the act represents the real relationship that is being developed by a man and the woman who wants to kill him yet still can't stop her love. Sexy and taut as these sequences are, anyone coming for skin and spies will be disappointed when they realize Lust, Caution runs close to three hours and is more concerned with the details around the more sensational scenes. The film was mismarketed as an erotic espionage thriller, and instead it is a slow-burn study of a woman discovering herself through the calculated action of pretending to love a man she considers monstrous. There is no mistake in showing a game of mahjongg in the opening sequence, because the pace of Lust, Caution mirrors that long, drawn-out game of small moves and tons of plotting by its players. The film takes its time, and anyone who lacks patience will find it slow and laborious. Ang Lee lets stories breathe, and perhaps he does this too much, as many recent productions including this one can seem overly long. This film was based on a classic short story, and yet somehow clocks in at a healthy two hours and forty minutes.
The DVD presentation is fine from a technical standpoint, but American audiences are not given much in the way of extras. We get a behind-the-scenes featurette with the leading actors, the director, and his production team briefly telling us about the process and what the story means to them. It is fast paced, but you want to see more of how everything came together. There are so many cultural touches that only Chinese or Japanese people will understand, and I wish they had shed more light on these. The film itself is a gift to the younger generation who may not realize what this period was like, but some of it will be subtle or obtuse to Western eyes. Even the title is a playful pun in that it uses two characters that have multiple meanings, which could turn the title to "Lust, Caution" or "Ring of Lust." Ang Lee should have been on hand to explain all of this, because it is a rich cultural tapestry. I'd love to hear Lee do a commentary, but it seems this has not happened yet on DVD. Simple as the extras are, the visual transfer is strong enough to capture the cinematography. We get a picture that is purposefully soft and romantic at points, but there are no digital artifacts or problematic cases of edge enhancement. Sound is available in several formats including robust crisp options in Chinese or French. Anyone hoping for an English dub is not going to find one, though there are standard English subtitles as well as those for the hearing impaired. The transcripts are well executed, usually running below the picture so as not to interfere with the excellent photography.
There are two widescreen versions of this DVD: an R-rated cut as well as the original NC-17. Almost a full 10 minutes is missing from the MPAA approved version, and they are important to the story to inform the characters. Ang Lee obviously intended the more graphic cut to be released, but in America the MPAA found the sex scenes to be too graphic for their taste. Unfortunately this says more about that organization than the content of this movie. They aren't protecting anyone from damaging sequences, because the story hinges on us knowing what happens in the affair at every level. Without these scenes, we don't comprehend what this girl has gone through, and the film has less impact. Definitely check your copy and make sure you get the full unrated version. This wasn't released in America uncut until now, so even those who caught this one in the cinemas may want to revisit it to see what they missed. Yes, the NC-17 cut includes graphic material and violence against women, but these are crucial to the story even if they are distasteful in concept. They never feel exploitative, but lend more primacy and passion to the lush, perfect world.
Lust, Caution is a slow burn of a film that rewards patient viewers with a look at a dark chapter in Chinese history. It was important to Ang Lee to preserve the world he is creating, and his passion shows through every element of this film. It is not your typical romance, espionage thriller, or erotic drama. It exists on its own terms and becomes an essay on what happens to a woman who begins to blur her deadly mission with something more lethal—true love. It feels like what it must be like to be a spy in a real war. There are stretches of the film that seem tedious and banal and take forever, and then you have just a moment or two of excitement. It's the waiting that is the hardest part. Lust, Caution is an important chapter in Ang Lee's growing canon of finely crafted and emotionally honest films. It is the spiritual sequel to Brokeback Mountain and gives the director a chance to mine his homeland's history for a tale of forbidden and repressed love at a high price.
Guilty of being another thoughtful meditation on inconvenient love and soul
crushing repression from Ang Lee. Sexy, suspenseful, and slowly paced, Lust,
Caution is sentenced to being only viewed by patient people who love art
direction and subtitles.
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• Behind the Scenes Featurette
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