The studios' stock-in-trade is the "easy" film": easy to enjoy, easy to understand, easy to love. With Lust, Caution, his follow-up to Brokeback Mountain, Oscar-winning director Ang Lee provides no such easy comfort, instead keeping audiences constantly off-kilter, purposefully frustrating them with character behavior that's just...wrong.
As adapted from Eileen Chang's dense short story, Lust, Caution artfully limns its dark psychological examination with period verisimilitude and Hitchcockian suspense trickery. In an astonishing debut, Tang Wei plays Wong Chia Chi, a freedom fighter in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. She's prodded by fellow student revolutionaries—equally in over their heads—to infiltrate the domestic life of fearsome secret service man Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai of In The Mood for Love).
While awaiting the opportunity to assassinate her masochistic prey, the young woman must play out a living Mata Hari-Kama Sutra nightmare at his hands. The situation threatens not only her life but her sense of self, making for a dark cinematic journey marked, for better and worse, by Lee's sometimes overly meticulous approach. Though a case could be made that less would have been more here, Lee wields powerful control over the story and clearly relishes its flexibility to embody the thriller genre at its lushest (by way of visual allusions to Cary Grant in Penny Serenade, Ingrid Bergman in Intermezzo, and the Grant-Hitchcock collaboration Suspicion, Lee cleverly nods to the most comparable confluence: the Hitchcock-Grant-Bergman collaboration Notorious).
Above all, Lust, Caution is a character study of the pitiably heroic Wong Chia Chi. Making multiple errors with the best of intentions, the naive young woman hardens through painful mistreatment but never loses her idealism and need to believe she will be rewarded for her pains. This tragic flaw results in a climax that on its face appears maddeningly retrograde, but reflects a credible psychological truth of how a moment in time is more susceptible to emotion than rationality.
In what some have seen as an overreaction to a sector of criticism about Brokeback Mountain, Lee puts explicit sex in the mix this time, earning an NC-17 rating (and sparking spirited discussions about how much of the sex is unsimulated). Wong Chia Chi's dangerous sexual odyssey is also part and parcel of the complex psychology of the actor and the spy. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be." After her shameful, loveless induction into sexuality at the hands of one of her fellow student revolutionaries, Wong will not turn back: she submits to Yee's sadistic sexuality and a suspicion that would be pathological were it not intuitively correct, and answers it with unflinching confidence (doomed to fissure in private). To the suggestion of a trap, she replies, "What trap are you talking about? My body?"
Indeed, as they tangle each other in sexual knots, the two socio-politically bind each other so tightly as to lose their grip on sense of self. This ultimate transgressiveness begins to seem more real than respective political gains. Or is the sex as political as it gets? In a time following, experiencing, and preceding female opression (a male revolutionary tellingly rejects the "bourgeois" A Doll's House in favor of melodramatic patriotism), Wong takes control where she can get it, and her actions prove her stronger and, perhaps, more moral than any man in the country. This strength shouldn't be forgotten at Chang's sadly ironic, irreversible climax, a moment of psychosexual weakness.
[For Groucho's interview with Ang Lee & Tang Wei, click here.]
Universal rolls out a solid transfer for Lust, Caution's home-video debut: the slightly soft look and subtle grain accurately represent the film's theatrical appearance; other than some mild halo-ing, this is a very nice transfer, with a 5.1 surround soundtrack to match.
Unfortunately the studio has only invested in a single bonus feature: a worthwhile seventeen-minute featurette entitled "Tiles of Deception, Lurid Affections." It's a pretty standard, EPK-style look at the film's themes, origins as an Eileen Chang short story, cast, director, and production. It's a lot to cover in seventeen minutes, so there's a frustrating lack of depth and, for that matter, breadth: little attention is paid to the film's design and photography, despite a few comments by DP Rodrigo Prieto about his director. In addition to Prieto, participants include Ang Lee; co-screenwriter/producer James Schamus; stars Tony Leung Chai Wai, Tang Wei, Joan Chen, and Wang Leehom; and producer Bill Kong.
Leading off the disc are previews for Atonement, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. Now's the time to catch up with this undeservedly overlooked film from modern master Lee. Since the home-video market demands an R-rated version for some outlets, be sure to get Lee's uncensored, NC-17 theatrical cut.
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