Dir. Ang Lee. China/US, 2007. 156 mins.
One of the main attractions in Venice this year, Ang Lee's new film promises much more than it actually delivers. Lavishly handsome and elegant, possibly too much so for its own good, this sprawling adaptation of a short story by Eileen Chang risks leaving audiences cold - despite the sometimes excessively passionate nature of its storyline.
Comparisons with Brokeback Mountain are inevitable but with its long-running time and the subtitled, non-English content there isn't much chance that Lee will secure the same level of global market success. Still, the high production values and the presence of some of the sexiest movie scenes of the year may well help the film navigate, at least for a while, the high-end of the international arthouse circuit thanks to the director's already established reputation. Ancillaries and DVD will be strong.
However he relative novelty of the torrid love-making scenes between Tony Leung and tyro Tang Wei (some ninety minutes into the film), looking out of place in the context of most Chinese cinema, don't add much depthto the characters. Sexually explicit to the point of bluntness, a tamer version is said to be in preparation for mainland China; censorship issues would otherwise follow. Lust, Caution has already received an NC-17 rating in the US which Focus Features are not disputing.
Though taking on a major slice of Chinese history it never explores beyondits most obvious and superficial aspects. The plot fits perfectly within the dimensions of a short story; in 1938 Chia Chi (Wei), a Hong Kong University student, is drafted by the Resistance to participate in a plot whose purpose is to murder a certain Mr. Yee (Leung), a collaborator with the Japanese occupiers.
Pushed into this plan by a fellow student, Kuang (Wang Leehom), who is secretly in love with her,ChiaChitakes on a fake identity and pretends to be married to a rich merchant. Introduced into Yee's household, the plan is a secution and delivery into the hands of the conspirators. But at the last moment, Yee suddenly goes back to Shanghai before the plotterscan act.
Three years later, Chai Chi is in Shanghai too, a poor student living with her aunt and studying Japanese, when Kuang enters her life again, persuading her to pick up the plot where it had been left in Hong Kong. She is supposed to go back to Yee, who is now the head of the secret police in town, and when he is in her power, help finish him off. But once Chia Chi and Yee become lovers, their mutual lust burns them up to the point where she is no longer sure of her mission. He throws caution to the winds as they both yearn with equal passion to be in each other's arms.
Had Lee accepted that his film is about the conflict between duty and desire, and worked smoothly on this premise, this could have been a far more focused and precise film. Hitchcock, whose work is mentioned several times in his picture, applied a similar approach to filmssuch asSuspicion or Notorious (whose plot bears more than just a little resemblance to Chang's story). But by wishing to expand the story into a vast period portrait, first of Hong Kong, and then of Shanghai, Lee opens up avenues that he never has time to follow up.
What happens instead is one of those typical Hollywood scenarios consisting of huge well-upholstered sets, which look far too clean and spruced up for the world they represent. Pristine photography belies the frankly dire conditions of poverty and war which the film issupposed to portray; costumes too are decoratively ragged. A calm, laid back sense of montage contradicts the urgency of the story itself and of the dramatic times it takes place in.
Joan Chen, as Yee's wife, presides over a bevy of perfectly made-up socialites playing mahjong and gossiping to their hearts' delight (in sessions badly in need of trimming) Not that one would notice it here but their world is going up in flames.
The steamy clinches between the two lovers are the exception, going much farther afield than most commercial pictures ever dare and revealing details that are usually restricted to exploitation fare only. But since neither Chia Chi nor Yee are more than briefly sketched it is hard to see these scenes anything more than captured moments of enjoyable passtime. After all, her motivations to stick with her deadly assignment are never satisfactorily clarified, while his sadistic chief of police looks more like a pose.
Wei is lovely to look at and pretty fearless to play this part, but complexity is not one of her distinguishing features. As for Leung, he was far more of a smouldering, passionate, obsessed personality in Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love than he ever begins to be here. If anything, this film might remind audiences of that earlier Chang adaptation, Stanley Kwan's more intimate, more subdued Red Rose, White Rose.
Excessive use of dialogue largely carries the story; Lust, Caution's literary origins haven't quite made the transition to the big screen.
Hai Sheng Production Company
River Road Production
Focus Features Int.
Focus Features Int
(1) 212 539 4000
Based on Elaine Chang's short story Se, Jie
Tony Leung (Chiu Wai)