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Lust, Caution
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Too Little Of The Former, Too Much Of The Latter"
2 stars

The films of Ang Lee are an eclectic lot–ranging from intimate dramas like “The Ice Storm” and “Brokeback Mountain” to period films such as “Sense and Sensibility” and “Ride With the Devil” to the unexpected blockbusters “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Hulk”–but while they may seem like a wildly diverse collection of titles from a genre standpoint, they all share a common unifying point in that they are all essentially about repression. In each film, his central characters feel strongly and passionately about something but choose to keep it inside for fear of what the outside world might think, a decision that usually leads to disastrously unhappy results for everyone involved when those feelings are finally unleashed. (Despite the general level of scorn heaped on his wildly misunderstood and underrated effort, not only does it make perfect sense that he would choose to make a film version of the Incredible Hulk, a character who is nothing but unleashed emotion, I cannot think of another filmmaker better suited to have taken on the task.) His latest effort, the WW II romantic drama “Lust, Caution,” is a perfect thematic fit with his other films but this time around, something has gone dreadfully wrong in the execution. This is a story that wants to blend sexual explicitness with emotional reticence and while that may be a nervy conceit for an erotic drama, Lee winds up giving us too little lust and too much caution and the result is a visually stunning but dramatically inert slog.

After a prologue that the film will eventually double-back to towards the end, “Lust Caution” opens up in 1938 Hong Kong and introduces us to Wong Chia Chi (newcomer Wei Tang), a shy young woman who escaped Shanghai in advance of the Japanese invasion and who is now going to college. On a whim, she auditions for a play being put on by a patriotic theatrical group in order to boost morale and encourage people to fight for their country. Surprisingly, Wong has a natural gift for putting herself into another person’s shoes and carrying audiences along with her and because of this, the other members of the group bring her in on a plan that they are hatching. It turns out that one of them has a connection with Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), a wealthy Chinese man who has traitorously sold out his countrymen by working for the Japanese in order to maintain his comfortable existence. To stop him, the theater group hatches a seemingly ludicrous assassination plot in which Wong will pose as the wife of a wealthy Chinese businessman, befriend Yee’s wife (Joan Chen) and eventually seduce Yee himself in order to get close enough to him to allow her compatriots to do him in. For a while, the plot actually works–Wong, now known as Mrs. Mak Tai Tai, insinuates herself into the Yee household and eventually into Yee’s bed (though not before one of her fellow plotters teaches the virginal Wong how to make love in a convincing manner)–but eventually, the plot is discovered by an associate and while the gang is eventually able to dispatch of him (in a scene that will remind many of the infamous extended murder of the spy in Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain”) before he can identify them, the jig is officially up.

Three years later, Wong is back in Shanghai while Mr. Yee has become an even more powerful menace than before. By chance, Wong runs into one of her fellow plotters who reminds her that “the job we started is still unfinished” and before too long, she has reinstated herself in Mr Yee’s life and bed. All seems to be going well until Wong begins to face the same problem that she did before–the inescapable fact that she has grown genuine feelings for her mark that she cannot easily dismiss even though his betrayal of their homeland and people has sent countless innocent people to their graves over the past few years. She is torn by her feelings towards him versus her love for her country until she makes a split-second decision inside a diamond shop that will have lasting repercussions for both of them.

Those of you with good memories and excellent taste when it comes to movies will have no doubt recognized that the basic plot parameters of “Lust, Caution” are strikingly similar to “Black Book,” the critically acclaimed Paul Verhoeven war epic that was released earlier this year–in that film, you may recall, a Jewish woman working with the Dutch resistance posed as an Aryan in order to seduce a local Nazi bigwig, fell in love with him and found that he was the only person she could trust once the war ended and the local townspeople mistook her top-secret mission as a bit of craven collaboration. It is an admittedly pulpy story conceit and one of the great things about was the way that Verhoeven handled the material so that it worked as a straightforward war film, a romantic soap opera, an eye-opening look at the less-than-noble behavior of many Holland citizens both during and after the war and as a dark comedy in which all our cherished notions about the Second World War (which mostly came from film treatments of the subject instead of the grim details of the real life experience) while moving like a shot for over 2 ½ solid hours with nary a misstep.

Alas, outside of the basic subject matter, the only thing that “Lust, Caution” has in common with “Black Book” is the fact that it is also about 2 ½ hours long. Granted, one doesn’t go to an Ang Lee film for pulpy thrills–even such seemingly straightforward genre items as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Hulk” were handled with a stately elegance that did much to elevate those films from their seemingly humble origins–but with this film, Lee goes so far in the other direction that it feels like what “Black Book” would have been like had it been completely leached of all that pesky tension and excitement. None of the characters have been particularly well-defined by co-writers Hui-Ling Wang and James Schamus–we don’t get any real handle on why the seemingly shy Wong blossoms so fully in the spotlight, why Yee would betray his people to the Japanese and why this particular woman has the ability to unlock a heart that has been so precisely and definitively closed–and since we don’t really care about them, it is hard to work up any rooting interest in what happens to them as the story drags on and on. Instead, Lee is more interested in showing us just how removed Yee and the people in his circle have made themselves from the chaos they have helped instigate. This isn’t a bad idea in theory but in practice, it doesn’t work because his only real notion of how to represent this idea is by giving us endless scenes of Wong, Mrs. Yee and other playing mah-jongg while blithely talking about shopping excursions. This is interesting for maybe a minute but I can almost guarantee that even if you are the biggest mah-jongg fanatic in the world–the kind of person who has been waiting for the world of cinema to give it the same presence that it has done for crossword puzzles, dodgeball and Rollerball–you are not going to walk out of “Lust, Caution” wishing that there had been more mah-jongg scenes.

What eventually does “Lust, Caution” in for good is the fatal absence of the single element that a film of this type absolutely has to have if it is to succeed–convincing chemistry between the two leads. Individually, the two of them are just fine–as anyone who has seen his collaborations with Wong Kar-Wai (including “Chungking Express,” “In the Mood For Love” and “2046") can attest, there are few actors working today who are better at suggesting volumes while saying relatively little and newcomer Wei Tang does such a good job of holding our attention throughout the film (for which she is on-screen for virtually every scene) that you might be shocked to learn that this is not only her first lead role in a movie, it is her first movie role period–but when they get together, they fail to strike any real sparks whatsoever. Oh sure, they bare their bodies easily enough in their extended sex scenes (which are graphic enough to earn the film an NC-17 rating) but they never do the same with their souls and as a result, we never buy into the notion of their mutual romantic obsession that the entire film is hinged upon. By contrast, Joan Chen, as Yee’s wife, does create a real character in her few scenes and she bring enough electricity to the proceedings that you may find yourself wishing that the film could have been made a decade or two ago so that she could have had a chance to play Wong and knock it out of the park.

Although I am not recommending “Lust, Caution,” it isn’t a disaster by any means. It is a noble attempt by Ang Lee to make an ambitious and sweeping epic drama and even though it doesn’t succeed by any means, it shows that he is the kind of gifted filmmaker for whom even the misfires have moments of interest. I would say that if you feel as I do that Lee is one of the major filmmakers of our time, then you should definitely check out “Lust, Caution.” That said, I would also suggest that your time might be better spent catching up with the other Lee films you haven’t seen before and revisiting the ones you have before spending your hard-earned time and money on this one.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16447&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/05/07 00:17:22
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Vancouver International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Vancouver International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/12/07 Ashly Ganahl Visually and musically beautiful, intruiging (although almost too similar to Black Book). 4 stars
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  28-Sep-2007 (NC-17)
  DVD: 12-Feb-2008



Directed by
  Ang Lee

Written by
  James Schamus
  Hui-Ling Wang

  Wei Tang
  Tony Leung
  Joan Chen

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