Ang Lee's Lust, Caution won the prestigious Golden Lion award earlier this year at Venice, but not without some controversy. Apparently the press was unhappy with the choice, and early reviews have been mixed. The run time is two and a half hours, MPAA ratings stuck the film with a cautionary NC-17 rating, and on top of that, I'm not a fan of Lee's previous film, the acclaimed, academy award winning Brokeback Mountain. I went into the screening with trepidation. The trepidation was not necessary.
Lust, Caution is a gorgeous film, sweeping you away to a different time and place. Based on a short story by Eileen Wang, Lust, Caution opens with four women, expensively dressed, gathered round a mahjong table, making conversation as their tiles fly across the table. The youngest player at the table seems out of place, her lustrous red lips and impeccable attire belied by the seeming innocence of her youthful face. The 156 minute long espionage thriller belongs to this young woman, Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei), whose life is shaped by the misfortune of coming of age in Japanese-occupied Shanghai during World War II.
The wide-eyed college freshman stars in a school production intended to stir patriotism. Her first and only student performance is so good that she brings the entire audience to their feet, chanting for the success of the nation. From there, it's a fast leap from the stage into espionage. The handsome leader of the theater group is also a handsome revolutionary Kuang (Wang Leehom) and he invites the impressionable Wong to join his scheme to assassinate a top Japanese collaborator, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung).
The inexperienced young radicals play spy in early, fumbling, captivating scenes as the hapless student actors attempt and fail to murder the untouchable diplomat. The Chinese resistance, however, turns out to be watching them, and later asks Wong to reprise her role as an affluent married woman who will lure Yee into a trap. Wong's total transformation is nothing less than stunning: from the straight-haired, almost ordinary girl to Mrs. Mak Tai Tai, a poised, coiffed woman in alluring Chinese dress. All throughout Lust, Caution, the enormous divide of Wong's character continues to amaze. Tang Wei is disarmingly beautiful, and she gives a wonderful performance in her first film--in an exceedingly difficult role at that.
Leave it to a powerful nation to depend on a young, inexperienced woman to help win a war. Lust, Caution contains extended, graphic sex scenes that often border on violent and establish the complicated nature of the relationship between the older Yee and the younger, less experienced woman. Tony Leung, one of Asia's biggest movie stars, gives a fearsome, complex performance as a sadistic man who literally pierces his way into the secret agent's heart.