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Lust, Caution

Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Tang Wei in Lust, Caution.
Chinese: 色·戒
Year: 2007  
Director: Ang Lee  
Producer: Ang Lee, Bill Kong  
  Writer: Wang Hui-Ling, James Schamus, Eileen Chang (original short story)
  Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Tang Wei, Joan Chen, Leehom Wang, Tou Chung-Wah, Chu Chih-Ying Chu, Kao Ying-Hsien, Ko Yue-Lun, Johnson Yuen, Chin Kar-Lok
  The Skinny: Ang Lee's romantic spy drama runs a full 157 minutes, and it's a ponderous, epic haul that could alienate less tolerant viewers. But with such fine performances, exquisite detail, and complex and involving emotions, it's a journey that's well worth it.
by Kozo:

Lust, Caution, Ang Lee's adaptation of Eileen Chang's short story, is probably most notorious for its NC-17-earning love scenes, which feature copious nudity and gymnastic positioning from Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and newcomer Tang Wei. Those who put the film on their must-see list simply to catch some skin won't be totally disappointed; the actual amount of sex amounts to less than ten minutes, but the scenes are quite explicit in all their sweaty, bodies-intertwining glory. The scenes also don't occur until the latter half of the film, which clocks in at an astounding 157 minutes of sumptuous period detail, intense mahjong sequences, and portentous gazes, all of which take precedence to the sordid stuff that baser audiences will likely tune in for. But that doesn't mean it's all filler; on the contrary, the running time of Lust, Caution is largely justified, serving to add weight and depth to Lee's potentially ponderous epic. The extreme length and slow pace of the film can sometimes feel like a drag, but ultimately, the long and sometimes frustrating journey is well worth it.

Tang Wei turns in a very brave debut performance as Wang Chia-Chih, a drama student who travels a winding emotional road, flirting with both the enemy and her own inner darkness. We first meet her in 1942, engaging in a game of mahjong with Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen) and friends, before she excuses herself to take care of a mysterious errand. She stops at a Shanghai cafe, and makes a phone call to her co-conspirators, telling them that today's the day they carry out their plan: to assassinate Mrs. Yee's husband, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), the head of the Chinese Secret Police owned in full by the Japanese occupational government. In the opening moments, the film has our full attention, as Wang is already waist-deep in espionage, duplicity, and catty conversations over the mahjong table. She's just called in the hit, and she's now nervous, applying perfume anxiously, her eyes flitting from one person to the next to determine if they're friend or foe. Her raw nerves are expected and understandable.

But her nerves run much, much deeper than that. Before we can see the outcome of Chia-Chih's fateful phone call, the film flashes back four years to late-thirties Hong Kong, introducing us to the origin of the assassination plot and Wang Chia-Chih's first steps along her treacherous road. Chia-Chih has just been transplanted to Hong Kong University, where she joins a drama troupe, performing patriotic plays that stoke the pride of the Chinese people. After her first performance as the troupe's leading lady, Chia-Chih is flush with excitement over her onstage success.

But student director Kuang Yu-Min (Leehom Wang) has a new play for the group, one with real consequences and more than just token applause. Yu-Min's cousin Tsao (Chin Kar-Lok) is an attendant to Mr. Yee, who's now residing in Hong Kong along with his wife, and Yu-Min theorizes that the group can utilize their talents - especially Wang Chia-Chih's - to set up a honey trap. Chia-Chih will befriend Mrs. Yee, insinuating herself into her inner circle, before luring Mr. Yee into an extramarital tryst and, if everything goes according to plan, setting up his assassination. Presto, the student patriots have now become resistance heroes.

Except they're just kids, and ones without the savvy and experience to carry out their mission. Eileen Chang's original short story only covers the students' backstory in a few paragraphs, but Ang Lee spends plenty of time with the fledging espionage agents in Hong Kong, fleshing out the situations and characters, and outlining the beginning of their operation and its emotional pitfalls and multiple missteps. Mr. Yee is much more cautious than the group expects, keeping his schedule and security nearly impenetrable, while the students have their own problems staying focused and patient.

Through all this, Chia-Chih continues playing her role, while also making the necesssary sacrifices. When Yee starts to show interest in her, the group discusses what to do about Chia-Chih's virginity, letting the only experienced member, Liang (Ko Yue-Lin), deflower her and teach her the basics. The moment is key, because it starts Chia-Chih's quiet disenchantment with her comrades, and her disappointment in Yu-Min, who shares a mutual attraction with Chia-Chih, but lacks the courage or passion to act. Ultimately, the students' plan never reaches fruition, but they all pay a price - most especially Chia-Chih. When the operation resumes years later in Shanghai under the official eye of the Resistance, Chia-Chih is eager to return. But is it for the cause, or for Mr Yee's steely gaze?

Ang Lee's adaptation of Lust, Caution is much more romantic than Eileen Chang's original work. Both the film and short story focus on Wang Chia-Chih's turbulent emotions and conflicted personal perspective, but the short story also possesses moments where we see Mr. Yee's thoughts, presenting a cynical, cold, and chilling view of love as a tool to possess and even destroy another human being. Eileen Chang's Mr. Yee is balding and in his fifties, and he and Wang Chia-Chih's courtship is very much about the unspoken realities of their tryst - that is, the material ones - as it is about any notion of love.

Ang Lee's Lust, Cautions differs. First of all, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is not in his fifties nor is he balding, and the materialism between the two seems to exist as an affirmation of their emotional connection. Lee gives the characters the opportunity to move from attraction to perhaps real affection. Their growing lust builds for over ninety minutes to the moment when they finally share their first intimate moment, a bedroom encounter that opens up the characters considerably. Before Mr. Yee and Wang Chia-Chih sleep together, he's a distant individual whose dapper appearance is as sinister as it is potentially charming, with a mask hiding his presumed evil.

The sex scenes in Lust, Caution change that about the characters, revealing anger and passion that is understandable, given the circumstances. Mr. Yee becomes a much more understood and even sympathetic figure, though his cruelty and essential evil are never truly in doubt. The film clouds his actions for the Japanese, never letting us see what his job requires him to do, but the violence and coldness he displays appear more inwardly-focused, revealing a possible self loathing. The film is never truly clear on whether or not Mr. Yee's changes indicate a growing trust or a possible self-abandon when in Chia-Chih's embrace. Is Mr. Yee suspicious of Chia-Chih, and yet allowing her access to end his life? Or is his trust genuine, and does he lower his defense out of affection?

Ang Lee has been questioned about the necessity of the film's extreme love scenes, but the scenes' passion and anguish help the film considerably. In a sense, they are the film's action scenes, bringing conflicts to a head, while also revealing characters at their most naked - both figuratively and literally. The film essentially builds towards the love scenes, and while the prudish may find them a bit too much, they do propel the film's emotions towards their devastating end.

As Mr. Yee, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai brings his trademark smoldering charisma to the film, sometimes appearing to underplay his role as the villain. However, gone is the somewhat impish, self-conscious charm that usually reveals him to be a lovable rogue, replaced here with a cold intensity that speaks silent volumes about a man who's done terrible, terrible things. Leung is no stranger to tortured roles, but he seems to sublimate those emotions so much more in Lust, Caution, using his famously expressive eyes to do far more than most actors can do with whole pages of dialogue. Leung's final moments in the film are especially effective, his eyes revealing a quiet devastation that practically redeems the film's long, languid build-up. Before that there are many more scenes revealing his character, both incidentally and purposefully, and it's questionable if every single detail and moment needed to be told. However, in his final moments onscreen, a payoff does exist.

Nearly as impressive as Leung is newcomer Tang Wei, who gives Wang Chia-Chih complexity and depth, appearing both in control and sometimes desperately lost, all through action, expression, and double-edged dialogue. The role of Chia-Chih is one that could likely not have been performed by an actress other than an ingénue, as the baggage associated with the role would probably overshadow the performance of any known Chinese actress. Tang gets to inhabit this meaty role as Wang Chia-Chih and only Wang Chia-Chih, bringing no preconceived notions or persona to the screen other than that of the character she plays. Physically, she suits Eileen Chang's 1940s Shanghai very well, and is convincing when glamorized or de-glamorized through makeup and her period wardrobe. This is an impressive debut, considering the scale of the production and the demands of the role. It'll be curious to see where Tang Wei goes from here.

The other actors suffer by comparison to the leading pair, though the blame could fall on screentime and development as much as on actual performance. Joan Chen is barely used as Mrs. Yee, and Leehom Wang doesn't fully register as Yu-Min, a character who should be far more charismatic than the schoolboy he appears to be. The rest of the cast is fine, and Ang Lee displays his usual talent with wringing effective, low-key performances from his cast of performers, giving them personality without requiring that they take over the spotlight. Lee's power as a director is undeniably connected to his ability to establish and explore complex, extreme, and yet recognizable emotions, creating characters that don't feel like creations as much as human beings themselves. The film spends inordinate amounts of time with Wang Chia-Chih and Mr. Yee, but the time is well-spent, using interaction and dialogue to build a relationship and world that can seduce and mesmerize the viewer.

But the time spent may also be a bit too much for some viewers. At nearly two hours and forty minutes, and with few active events, Lust, Caution proves to be a long haul. While the film doesn't waste time like, say, the numbingly long Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, one wonders if economy couldn't have been employed at some point. The film doesn't feature much in the way of repetition, but it moves very languidly, cutting very few corners and reveling in beautifully arranged settings, complete conversations and slow-burn, simmering suspense. Only once or twice does the tension get physically immediate; usually it's internal, and given the frequent elliptical and unrevealing dialogue (especially to those who won't get mahjong strategy or even the historical context), it's possible that some audience members will be checking their watch more than once or twice. Lust, Caution is a tough sell for mass audiences, and is most assuredly not for everyone because it uses an extravagant running time to tell as story that could justifiably been told in much less time.

Does that make Ang Lee's uncompromising vision a mistake? I don't believe so, as a filmmaker should be free to tell the story that he or she feels compelled to tell, and not be hamstrung by notions of varying audience taste or tolerance. Lee has clearly put a certain audience aside in order to tell the story that he wanted to, and it's not a crackling spy thriller or a suspenseful espionage epic, but a detailed drama about flawed characters and emotions hidden, discovered, and ultimately destroyed, in large part by the situations and historical events surrounding them. Lee has taken a 50-page short story and turned it into a full-blown 600-page novel, and despite that difference, few stretch marks really show. Lust, Caution will test the patience of some audiences, but it also will reward many with its exacting vision, finely-tuned performances and unspoken, sublime detail. After Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee was probably free to do whatever he wished, and Lust, Caution is the result. This is carte blanche given to a filmmaker, and Ang Lee doesn't misuse or abuse it. He simply deserves it. (Kozo 2007)

Availability: DVD (USA)
Region 1 NTSC
Universal Studios Home Video
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc

image courtesy of Focus Features Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen