The premise of Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution is already quite familiar: a female spy attaches herself to a high-ranking enemy officer in order to learn his secrets and, ultimately, kill him. Usually, these sorts of films involve the Nazis (Paul Verhoeven’s recent Black Book comes to mind), and while Lee’s Venice Film Festival winner is indeed set during World War II, he trades the Nazis for Chinese collaborators in an oft-ignored part of 20th century history — the Japanese conquest of China.
The film opens in occupied Shanghai, circa 1941. Mrs. Mak (Tang Wei) sits at a table with three older women who are busy playing mah-jongg and gossiping about their husbands. Unbeknownst to the others, Mrs. Mak’s real name is Wong Chia Chi, a member of the Chinese resistance sent on a mission to ensnare and facilitate the assassination of the husband of their hostess, Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen), a collaborator with the Japanese occupiers. When Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) shows up, it is clear, at least to us, that he and Mrs. Mak know each other beyond happenstance meetings at the gaming table. The seemingly frivolous mah-jongg games are a perfect mirror for the far more serious cat-and-mouse games also taking place.
The film jumps back in time to 1938 to reveal how Wong came to sit at the table of her enemy. A college student, Wong flees the Japanese onslaught and moves to Hong Kong where she falls in with a group of patriotic actors intent on putting on propaganda plays to stir the blood of ambivalent Chinese patrons.
Soon, the actors, led by the impassioned Kuang Yu Min (pop star Wang Leehom) decide on a charade far more elaborate and lethal. A local party official has been labeled a collaborator and the students take it upon themselves to infiltrate his inner circle and murder him. Wong becomes their willing bait and in an astonishing metamorphosis, transforms herself from a guileless schoolgirl into a dazzling seductress.
In Lust, Caution, the femme fatale is not the villain, but the heroine.
Though circumstances in 1938 go awry, the group gets a second chance three years later to draw Yee’s fly into Wong/Mrs. Mak's spider web. Or is it the other way around? Yee, now the head of the secret police, is exceptionally cautious and a cold manipulator, but he is also besotted with his wife’s playing partner and it isn’t long until he drops his guard just enough to let her in. While the two spend a large amount of the film in a ballet of conversation tinged with a subtext of desire, they soon begin a torrid affair during which some of Yee’s violent interrogation room practices come out in the bedroom.
Much has been made of the film’s problematic NC-17 rating, usually the kiss of death at the box office. To be sure, Lust, Caution’s sexuality is explicit, though never exploitative. Lee stages the sex scenes, which come late in the film, as sensual, erotic art, never exhibitionist titillation. Naked, the carnal power players continue circling each other like wild, wounded animals without any defense or armor. Is it any surprise then that their exposed hearts are penetrated? Will Wong and her rebels strike in time, or will she let her heart become involved and jeopardize all their lives?
Lust, Caution, based on a novella by the late, revered Chinese author Eileen Chang, is more than a story of political intrigue. It is an examination of shifting allegiances, the self-delusion of fragile identity, and the high price demanded for the artificiality of the masks we wear.
Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto casts a painterly spell with his camera, capturing a realistically drawn wartime Shanghai and Hong Kong wreathed in cigarette smoke, deepening shadows, and warm, evening light. The costumes are enchanting, composer Alexandre Desplat's music is dazzling, and screen newcomer Tang Wei, is a vision to behold, more than holding her own against the suave Leung, best known to American audiences for his role in Hero and the exquisite films of Wong Kar Wai. So why is it that this spectacularly produced film is so oddly disaffecting?
Lust, Caution moves like heavy cream or silk in a slight breeze — slow and luxurious. It seduces leisurely, artfully. Never one to pander to audience’s short attention spans, Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain) has made a sober, deliberately paced, two and a half hour film that requires concentration and patience.
Nevertheless, for all Lee’s meticulous control over this immaculately nuanced melodrama-thriller, there is a surprising lack of emotional draw. Lust, Caution is flawlessly played and exceptionally beautiful, but for the most part woefully bloodless. Lee gets all of the details right and hits all the correct notes, yet for all the film’s considerable charms, we are never tempted to invest our emotions in the characters. We can see no reason why Wong would hesitate in her mission or come to care for her debonair but cold-blooded target. Then again, perhaps it shouldn’t be all that surprising. After all, the title is not Love, Caution.