Overwrought and overlong, Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” nevertheless has some moments of exquisite beauty and a potentially star-making performance from newcomer Tang Wei — that is, for those few who can find the time and emotional dedication the film demands.
It’ll be a tough sell, and not just for the NC-17 rating the film famously received for graphic sex scenes that are sometimes brutal, sometimes borrowed from Cirque du Soleil. (Lee himself acknowledged as much recently, saying: “It’s not very audience-friendly for a market like the U.S. It’s not their subject matter.”)
Based on a short story by beloved Chinese writer Eileen Chang and set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai during World War II, “Lust, Caution” follows the torrid love affair between top Japanese collaborator Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) and Wong Chia Chi (Tang), a young spy who’s posing as an affluent married woman to lure him into an assassination plot.
Trouble is, she ends up falling for him, and he for her, which Lee captures in tragic noir fashion. The buildup takes awhile, though.
It helps to have read the original story to keep all the players straight — the wealthy wives, the idealistic young members of the Chinese resistance. Lee and writers James Schamus and Wang Hui Ling are slavishly faithful to the details of Chang’s work (the lush clothing, the gaudy jewels) while at the same time vastly expanding on them. (Rodrigo Prieto — who also shot “Brokeback Mountain,” which earned Lee a best-director Oscar — provides the dramatic cinematography.)
Wong, pretending to be the stylish Mrs. Mak, sits around playing mahjong with Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen, who gets little more to do than look elegant) and her equally status-conscious friends, still clinging to the remnants of their more opulent, prewar life. She’s much younger than the others in the group but has insinuated herself among them for shopping trips and long lunches, all with the ultimate goal of getting close to Yee himself.
As she’s about to meet him at a cafe for a tryst at the film’s start — a meeting that, in theory, should mean Yee’s end — Wong thinks back to how she got involved in this scheme four years earlier. It was 1938 and she was an impressionable college student in Hong Kong. A patriotic campus drama group, led by the passionate Kuang Yu Min (the charismatic, American-born Asian pop star Wang Leehom), recruits her to perform in their first stage production.
She’s good at it — and she’s instantly hooked on the rush she feels while losing herself in a role. This acting skill she never knew she had, and this sensation, prepare her for the part of mistress she will later play when the group sets its ambitious sights on the powerful, traitorous Yee.
Tang’s work here is reminiscent of Naomi Watts’ startling performance in “Mulholland Dr.,” in that it requires her to be entirely separate, distinct people depending on the situation, a feat she pulls off flawlessly. As a fresh-faced student, she looks and acts as if she’s still in her teens — but put her in a clingy, electric-blue cheongsam with sophisticated hair and makeup and a cigarette between her lips and she immediately becomes a classically dangerous femme fatale. She has a haunting beauty, appears in nearly every scene of “Lust, Caution” and completely holds her own opposite the far more seasoned Leung.
And Leung, the Asian film icon, functions here as a much darker figure than we’ve ever seen from him in such films as “Hero,” “Infernal Affairs” and “In the Mood for Love.” He can be tormented, sadistic and violent, especially during Yee’s first sexual interlude with the duplicitous Mrs. Mak.
Ah yes, the sex — the thing that has everyone in a tizzy. Lee had to cut a half-hour from “Lust, Caution” in order for it to be shown in Chinese theaters, but we see it all here. The scenes can be raw, intense, disturbing, acrobatic — they’ll make you crane your head from one side to the other — but, surprisingly, they ultimately turn romantic. Wong’s acting skills eventually begin to fail her as she finds herself surrendering, body and soul, to this man she never ordinarily would have been attracted to but now, unfortunately, loves.
The climactic conclusion also takes awhile to reach, and by then you will have long been shifting in your seat. But any film from Lee simply cannot be disregarded in simple terms; he once again proves he’s a master of mood and complexity of character, whether or not you’re up for the challenge.