Lust, Caution: Film Review

Directed by: Ang Lee, Runtime: 157 min. (unedited)
Grade: A

Ang Lee has rapidly ascended as one of my preferred modern directors by invoking his films, especially his relationship-based dramas, with a momentum that keeps the gears in motion until the credits roll. Lust, Caution (Se, Jie), notorious for being the NC-17 triumphant black sheep at the Venice Film Festival, could quite possibly be one of his best, if at the very least one of his most sprawling and visually ensnaring. In the tradition of Brokeback Mountain and The Ice Storm, Lee's newest film plays with tension, provocation, and emotional desperation in ways which the human psyche and emotive neuroses can barely cope. Much like its predecessors, Lust, Caution is an affective, sensual tour de force that's one of the best films of 2007, with one of the most enthralling performances of the year as well.

Set in China amidst the Japanese occupation during World War II, Ang Lee's Chinese language adaptation of Eileen Chang's novella first drops us in the middle of a game of Mahjong between several wealthy wives. A simple game of clanking tiles becomes a terse battle of wits and austerity right before our eyes, immediately setting the unnerving tone of the film. Wong Chai Chi (Tang Wei
), aka Mrs. Mak Tai Tai, excuses herself to go for coffee at a Westernized café. She walks to the restaurant's phone, mumbles a bit to her "brother", and sparks an undisclosed revolutionary event with a cluster of radicals awaiting her code-laced phonecall. It's an aggressive act long in the making - one that would set the gears in motion to claim the life of a powerful Japanese collaborator (Tony Leung).

Wong Chia Chi's origin story is told through flashback form over a four year period prior to this culmination, starting back to when she was a young student at a university and progressing forward to the film's current time. It follows her life's transition from a young girl easily influenced by the director of a propaganda play (Lee-Hom Wang) to the throws of revolutionary activity. As a cluster of actors and students turned revolutionaries following the success of their show, this small band of devotees decides to target Mr. Yee, an official suspected of bridging a gap to the Japanese. Vaguely reminiscent of Spielberg's Munich or even Barreto's Four Days in September, Lust, Caution humanizes this activist group to such a heartfelt degree that we grow to appreciate each member for their slight peculiarities. When the clan makes the decision to craft Wong Chia Chi into a sort of mistress for the married Mr. Yee in an attempt at assassination, the pain they felt escapes their glances perfectly. It makes certain, however, to unabashedly draw out enamored attention to Wong Chia Chi.

Tang Wei's freshman role as Wong Chia Chi is a flat-out revelation of the highest accord. Forged with Lee's direction as the melding hammer, her emblazoned magnetism creates a formidable heroine in the midst of transformation. Instead of specifically concentrating on her capacity to cope with being undercover or being a revolutionary, Tang Wei's performance and Lee's direction craft a strong cornerstone in Wong Chia Chi that show her writhing struggle to weld onto each persona. Her portrayal is filled with constrained emotions, featuring facial cues that seep like daggers into the nerves. She commands visual attention through her voluminous gazes and grasping warmth, all behind a character that neither stands strong as an actress or a revolutionary. Her character is nothing more than a girl, a talented girl, who spreads herself scathingly thin to achieve what she can in this world. Make no mistake, Lust, Caution is purely Wong Chia Chi's story about deception and her distress with being a seductive, malleable pawn for the Chinese revolution.

Lust, Caution delves deep into the expanses of the human spirit's willingness to both find importance and sacrifice itself for that purpose. It's a common theme in Lee's films to stretch the human nature towards its boundaries for what it believes in. Actually, it's a common thread in film, period; however, there's a certain delicacy and stringency behind Lee's directorial hand that makes his films vastly more impacting than many others about similar material. He lets the complicated relationship between a spy and her target develop into something haunting. As a result, the sparks between Mr. Yee and the undercover Wong Chia Chi offer some of the more understated complexities captured on film. Even from the first scene in which we see Tony Leung sit across from Tang Wei as their respective characters, the tension in the air seems nearly thick enough to slice with a knife. As Mr. Yee, Leung rustles up one of his more poignant, darker performances. He carries himself with vast darkness and ominous paranoia, characteristics not normally associated with Leung's typical characters a la Infernal Affairs and In the Mood for Love. Even at his most disarming points in the film, Mr. Yee's still barely on the verge of amicability.

Yet, it's not an interpersonal relationship you're really ever supposed to feel comfortable with, which is one of the cleverest and holistically intriguing elements of Lee's film. "Chemistry" isn't really the right word to describe Mr. Yee and Wong Chia Chi's mélange, yet there are plenty of fireworks. It's more akin to two speeding vehicles grinding against each other; both accelerate erratically, submersed in the fiery sparks of their affair, towards a tumultuous result. Much like such an affair, Lust, Caution powers forward with a velocity that really takes your breath away until its heartbreaking framework crashes upon itself.

But boy, is it a beautiful ride. Immediately noticeable once the music surfaces is the sumptuousness of Alexandre Desplat's craftsmanship with the score, which reminds me alot of his work with Curran's The Painted Veil. It thunders with deep drums and flickers with glittering nuances at all the right points, swirling and swaying with the '40s essence gently present across the film. Not quite as readily identifiable, but understandable once the credits roll, is the photography work from cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. He seems to pleasantly scatter his work between Lee, with his incredible work on Brokeback Mountain, and Alfonso Gonzales Inarritu, in which he shot all of his "moral trilogy" (Babel, 21 Grams, Amores Perros). Prieto captures the film's colorfully muted and expansive WWII-era sheen in such a way that it feels simple, comfortable even in its graceful and, at times, depressive beauty.

At well over two and a half hours long, Lust, Caution is a modernist epic, yet its tense espionage momentum makes the time tick by quicker than you'd probably like. Hardly a gun is shot or a weapon drawn, but the veracity behind this cloak and dagger dance between Mr. Yee and Wong Chia Chi clearly leaves a lasting impression of exasperated conflict once Ang Lee's film comes to a melancholy climax. It's a rather straightforward plot of scheming and detriment to China's wartime woes, but the humanist complexity lying underneath Lust, Caution's personal affairs makes its intrinsic perception a wholly gratifying experience. Quite simply, Lust, Caution is a damn fine film that twisted my nerves and squeezed my heart without relent.


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