Review by Jack Foley
ANG Lee underlines his ability to master any genre with Lust, Caution, a sexually explicit tale of wartime romance, intrigue and betrayal that’s based on a short story by renowned Chinese author Eileen Chang.
But anyone anticipating Lee’s version of Basic Instinct or The Lover had best think again, as the director has once again woven a deeply complex tale around a pretty straightforward narrative device.
It’s Shanghai, 1942, and a society woman (Tang Wei) walks into a cafe and makes a phone call. Events immediately cut back to 1938 when we see that the woman is actually a drama student named Wong Chia Chi who has been recruited by her patriotic colleagues to help with the assassination of a top Japanese collaborator, Mr Yee (Tony Leung), who has been responsible for the deaths of countless Chinese rebels.
Wong must therefore become Mrs Mak and gain Yee’s trust by befriending his wife (Joan Chen) and then draw him into an affair. But events don’t quite go as planned and the plot takes a number of years, before culminating in a shocking decision.
Lee maintains that he was drawn to the project because of the way the source material placed female sexuality against patriotism – and he explores this in a number of fascinating ways.
The central relationship between Wei and Leung is therefore extremely compelling, as each attempts to gain the upper hand at a time when no one can be trusted and attitudes are constantly changing.
For Wei’s character in particular, her blossoming sexuality gives rise to unexpected power and it’s how she uses it that gives the film its dramatic thrust late on.
Both Wei and Leung are excellent – the former making one of the boldest screen debuts you’re likely to witness in a long time, while the latter (a Hong Kong acting legend) displaying a hitherto untapped darkness to his on-screen persona. The sex scenes between them are extremely explicit, but far from erotic, and seldom make for comfortable viewing – merely adding to the heightened state of tension that exists throughout.
As with many of Lee’s films, however, there’s a tendency to over-indulge and the generous running time (in excess of two and a half hours) will certainly deter some from seeing it, as will some of the extreme content.
There’s also a coldness to his approach that makes some of the material difficult to connect with emotionally at times. This is not a happy film by any means and it will haunt viewers long after they’ve finished watching it.
But for all its faults and indiscretions, Lust, Caution remains a deeply absorbing piece of work that’s provocative in the extreme and which crucially treats its viewers as adults. It is yet another triumph for Lee.
In Mandarin, with subtitles
Running time: 2hrs 38mins
UK DVD Release: April 28, 2008