Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Tony Leung, Tang Wei, Joan Chen, Wang Lee-Hom
Written by: James Schamus, Wang Hui-Ling, based on a story by Eileen Chang
Directed by: Ang Lee
MPAA Rating: NC-17 for some explicit sexuality
Language: Mandarin with English subtitles
Running Time: 157
Date: 08/30/2007
IMDB

Lust, Caution (2007)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Caution' Club

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I got the impression throughout Lust, Caution, that director Ang Lee just arbitrarily set up his shots without much consideration for what they meant. His only concern is the story, not the art behind it. In a crucial, early exchange between our two lead characters, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Mak (Tang Wei), Lee very simply cuts back and forth between them on the beats of dialogue. When one finishes speaking, he cuts to the other, who starts speaking. There's no mystery or rhythm, and no concern for reactions or pauses.

Mrs. Mak is actually pretty college student, Wang (Tang Wei), who begins performing subversive, patriotic plays in college, under the direction of fellow student Kuang Yumin (Wang Leehom). After some success on the stage, Kuang finds a way to help in real life, by getting close to Mr. Yee, a traitor in bed with the Japanese, and assassinating him. Posing as Mrs. Mak, Wang quickly attracts Mr. Yee's attention, but their amateur operation is exposed and shut down. Years later, Kuang approaches Mrs. Mak/Wang to start up the ruse once more, this time under professional rules and with quite a bit more at stake. She strikes up a physical romance with Mr. Yee, who first rapes her, then engages her in more traditional sex, albeit via many twisty positions (let's just say they add a few new pages to the Kama Sutra). Director Ang Lee's film has infamously accepted its NC-17 rating for these realistic, raunchy sex scenes, which -- quite honestly -- have little to do with the rest of the staid, sober film. There were a myriad of other ways to establish the sensual love-hate relationship between the spy and the traitor.

Likewise, the film's first ten minutes reveal a serious lack of artistry. Lee gives us a series of dull shots, women talking incessantly while clattering Mahjong tiles, a car driving along over the course of three full shots, etc, all adding up to little. Then we discover that he and his screenwriters have lazily started the film with a flash-forward to a more exciting section of the story, rather than start with the boring beginning. I bring this up only because Lee is widely considered one of the greatest filmmakers in the world, and he ought to be a good deal better than this. I suspect that, like many others throughout history, he mistrusts cinema as an art form in itself, and sees it only as an extension of literature and theater. He adds external elements to make his films seem important. In this case, the movie's length (nearly 160 minutes) and his story about the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in the late 1930s and early 1940s, carry a historical weight.

Yet, despite myself, I found myself captivated at certain points -- especially after the midpoint -- caught up in the able performances of these two interesting characters. Mr. Leung is one of the great actors in all of Asia, having lent his considerable presence to such films as John Woo's Bullet in the Head (1990) and Hard-Boiled (1992), Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love (2001) -- and most of Wong's other films -- Alan Mak and Andrew Lau's Infernal Affairs (2002) and Zhang Yimou's Hero (2004). He has developed a kind of Eastwood-like hardness but with a small soul window to indicate his extraordinary passion. In one great sequence, he reacts to a bit of news only with his eyes and then his feet, and it's an astonishing bit of acting. As Mrs. Mak/Wang Tang Wei is a newcomer, and she relies on her youthful, pert beauty as well as a hidden pool of intelligence.

(See also my longer review at cinematical.com.)