Lust, Caution (2007): Ang Lee’s Disappointing Erotic Thriller

Though intermittently engaging, Ang Lee’s new political melodrama, Lust, Caution, is ultimately an artistic misfire.

Lee may be the only director in Venice Fest’s history to have twice received the top award in such a short period of time.  Brokeback Mountain, a film that ironically was rejected by Cannes Film Fest, won the Venice Jury Award in 2005, and now Lust, Caution joins its company as this year’s top choice of Venice Jury.

Due to the steamy, explicitly graphic sex secenes, Focus Features will release Lust, Caution, September 28, with the the rating of NC-17, a label that usually spells death at the box-office.

Our Grade: C+ (** out of *****)

There are other obstacles for the film’s potential in getting wider appeal tha the arthouse crowd.  Lust, Caution is long (two hours and 37 minutes), dramatically uneven, deliberately paced, and speaks various Chinese dialects; the dialogue is in Mandarin, Cantonese, and Shanghainese, with some Japanese and English.

And unlike Bertolucci’s scandalous Last Tango in Paris and The Dreamers, Lee’s film has no name cast, at least not on the level of Brando. Lee’s erotic espionage stars Asian cinema icon Tony Leung and the newcomer Tang Wei.

Going back to his Taiwanese roots, while using all the experience he has accumulated in the U.S. as an indie and mainstream Hollywood director, Lee has made an erotically-charged melodrama-thriller. The screenplay, by Wang Hui-ling and James Schamus (a regular Lee collaborator, also credited as producer here), is based on the short story by the revered Chinese author Eileen Chang, about the fate of a seemingly ordinary woman.

The tale begins in Shanghai, 1942, when the World War II Japanese occupation of the Chinese city prevails in force. Mrs. Mak, a seemingly rich, sophisticated woman is sitting in a coffee shop and waiting, after placing a telephone call, an image worth remembering, because the narrative returns to it later.

Through flashbacks, she remembers how her story began in 1938, China. We find out that Mrs. Mak is a shy girl named Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei), who has been left behind by her father in his escape to England.

As a first-year student at the university, Wong meets Kuang Yu Min (Wang Leehom), a student who has begun a drama society aiming to show patriotic plays. Wong becomes the troupes leading lady, which gives her tremendous satisfaction. She perceives it as more than a job, as a calling, which enables her to move and inspire viewers. Wong’s unrequited love will become one of the story’s delayed revelations, and by the time Kuang does respond to Wong sexually, it’s too late.

Kuang gathers a small militant group of students to carry out a radical and dangerous scheme to assassinate top Japanese collaborator Mr. Yee (Tony Leung). He assigns each student a part to play, and Wong is cast as Mrs. Mak. Her task is to gain Yees trust by first befriending his wife (Joan Chen) and then alluring Yee himself into an affair. To that extent, Wong transforms herself utterly, both physically and emotionally. All goes well until an unexpectedly fatal twist that can’t be told here.

Cut to Shanghai in 1941, a year before the feature’s first chapters began. With the occupation still in force, Wong, having emigrated from Hong Kong, simply tries to survive. Surprisingly, Kuang reappears as a member of the resistance, and he enlists Wong to again become Mrs. Mak in the same old plot to kill Yee. We learn that in the intervening years, as head of the secret service, Yee has become a crucial member of the cabinet. In recreating her former role, Wong is drawn closer to her dangerous target in risky interactions that test and contest her very identity.

Early on, Wong attends a movie, Intermezzo, starring Ingrid Bergman, which leaves her touched and in tears. Volumes could be read about this scene choice, both in textual-fictional, the story of Intermezzo,” and intertextual-factual ways. This was Ingrid Bergmans first Hollywood movie, after which she became a movie star, only to lose her credibility and status five years later, when she fell for Italian director Robert Rossellini and deserted her husband and daughter for him.

Throughout the tale, Western music is played on the soundtrack, with occasional references to Hollywood films of the era, either through attendance of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne films, or posters on the wall of Hitchcock thrillers.

The issues of self-delusion and fragile identities, and how they change as a result of random encounters (including sexual ones) are recurring motifs in Lee;s work, not just in Brokeback Mountain. In this feature, Wong’s identity is shattered, when she brings to the unexpected circumstances a set of needs, desires, and skills that have previously been unutilized, or remained dormant.

Interestingly, and this may be a coincidence, but Lust, Caution deals with similar themes to those of Paul Verhoevens provocative and erotic Black Book, which also centers on an attractive women, asked to sacrifice her self, identity, and nationality, and in the process falls real and hard for the enemy. Here, Wong immerses herself in the role of Madame Mak, based on personal conviction and persuasive skills; the Yees “buy” her identity.

The sexual acts of Wong and Yee are graphic, though anything but opportunistic, exhibitionist, or exploitative. Ang Lee stages them with meticulous attention to detail, imbuing each encounter with emotional intensity, eroticism, and power, too.

Like the Jewish heroine of Black Book who’s asked to collaborate, Wongs sexual engagement is a peculiar, complex mix of carnal, emotional, and power motives. Like Paul Verhoeven, helmer Lee recognizes womens sense of empowerment as a result of sexual control, an issue that has not been explored by Hollywood directors.

Is Wong acting in an assassination play, or is she becoming part of an actual plot When Wongs receives a present from Yee’s love, she is genuinely touched. But after witnessing a murder, her existence becomes too real and dangerous. Kuang vows to protect Wong from harm, but fails to recognize her identity until it becomes too late.

As director, Lee exercises meticulous command over the shifting identities, allegiances, emotions and desires in order to examine the desperate, destructive ways Wong (and figures like her) lose control over her fate.

As noted, Lust, Caution” shares thematic concerns with Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. In both films, the characters delude themselves by living an illusory, unfulfilled life and in the end pay high price for that.

On another level, Lust, Caution is a poignant, deconstructive essay on acting as a profession, and female actors in particular, with Lee joining the league of such directors as Bergman, Godard, and others, all of whom have made meditations on actresses and role-playing.

The immaculately-nuanced melodrama takes its time to build dramatic momentum, and the first hour is particularly slow. The film is deliberately paced but always accessible; it requires greater patience and attention, qualities that are seldom called upon while watching Hollywood fare, particularly summer sequels. “Lust, Caution” is a decidedly “fall” season movie, in all the meanings of this term.

Despite audacity in sexual themes, I suspect that Lee’s purist followers will charge the erotic thriller as too conventional, too melodramatic, which it is. So was Hitchcock’s 1946 “Notorious,” starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, which revolves around a similar premise. At the time, “Notorious” was deemed just a popular commercial fare, but decades later, scholars and auteurist critics regard “Notorious” as one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces (the second, to be exact, after the 1943 “Shadow of a Doubt”).

I don’t think that “Lust, Caution” is a masterpiece on the level of “Notorious,” but it’s an enjoyable, well-made melodrama, enabling the diverse Ag Lee to stretch and make a noir thriller in which West meets East.

Wei, Leung, Chen, and Leehom render compelling performances. The gorgeously looking (not a single bad angle while dressed or nude) screen debutante Tang Wei, a theater student who’s done TV series, meets the challenge of constructing conflicting facets of Wong’s personality, with suitors vying for one or more of her sides, often at the same time.

Hong Kong heartthrob and international star Leung (known for his work for Wong Kar-wei, among others) persuasively suggests cold manipulation. Leung’s Yee is a man of secrets, but he is more relaxed in Wongs presence and can confide in herup to a point. While keeping under wraps details of his business, he gradually begins discloses some hidden emotions.

The duo engages in conversations that conceal repressed desires and suggest dangerous political adventurism. Leung and Tang generate sparks and chemistry, especially in the sex scenes, which are bold by any standards as they involve full-frontal female nudity and unconventional sexual positions that even Bertolucci did not dare showing in such graphic detail. The steamy (S&M) sex, which is crucial for the story, is never gratuitous.

The writers have expanded the source material, fleshing out more fully the characters, but some of their choices will be scrutinized, such as the decision not to show Yee’s interrogation and torture, or the fact that despite blackmails and assassinations, the saga is not as graphically violent as similarly-themed American movies.

That said, Lust, Caution is not without humor. It will be interesting to see how Western viewers, specifically women, relate to the scene in which Wong discards her virginity–in order to promote political causes!

Wartime Shanghai is vividly conveyed by the brilliant Mexican director of cinematography Rodrigo Prieto, who also shot Lees film, Brokeback Mountain, as well as Innaritus Oscar-nominated epic Babel. The Hong Kong sequences, shot in Malaysia, are colorful, too. Ace composer Alexandre Desplat’s music elevates the sagas dramatic and emotional moments with the right tunes.

Credits

A Focus Features release of Haishang Films presentation, in association with Focus Features, River Road Entertainment, Silmetropole Organization, and Shanghai Film Group Corp.

Produced by Bill Kong, Ang Lee, James Schamus. Executive producers: Ren Zhonglun, Darren Shaw. Co-producers: Doris Tse, David Lee.

Directed by Ang Lee.

Screenplay: Wang Hui-ling and James Schamus, based on the short story by Eileen Chang.

Camera: Rodrigo Prieto.

Editor: Tim Squyres. Music: Alexandre Desplat.

Production design: Pan Lai.

Supervising art director: Olympic Lau.

Costume design: Pan Lai.

Sound: Philip Stockton, Eugene Gearty, Drew Kunin.

MPAA Rating: NC-17.

Running time: 157 Minutes.