While unfortunately titled, Lust, Caution is the work for which director Ang Lee (Hulk, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) should have deserved the Academy’s consideration. His weird sadomasochistic fantasies are yet again fulfilled here, however in this astonishing tale of seduction, espionage and betrayal, the direction is calculated in such a fascinating way; it demands attention rather than inflicting boredom.
Although many critics and audiences were flabbergasted by Lee’s “brilliant” use of the still shot in his Oscar nominated Brokeback Mountain, there wasn’t anything impressive with the straightforward, yet contrived message that sometimes a cowboy is just a gay man in a cowboy suit. That film was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but Lust, Caution is just full of wolves... vicious ones.
Hunting the Hunter
The film begins in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in 1942, engulfing us in a devious plot that appears so intricate, it just begs for a flashback. And we soon get one. Our protagonist, young Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) is introduced four years earlier in a more composed setting as a refugee, as many Chinese were during that period. She was a freshman at a university and aspiring actress at the time she met theater director Kuang Yu Min (Wang Leehom). He’s charming as he is handsome; so when Kuang decides that the theater group should start taking actual political action, Wong Chia naturally follows.
Their design starts to take shape, and over the next few years, the troupe begins to train and prepare. Kuang’s clever, yet grisly plan is an assassination plot against Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), head of the intelligence service of the collaborationist regime. The student director-turned-violent-political-activist’s goal is to create a fake existence for Wong Chia Chi, making her into the wealthy Mak Tai Tai with the intention to befriend Mr. Yee’s wife, and eventually become her husband’s mistress. Once his guard is down, they plan for an attack.
The beginning of the scheme seems to go without a hitch, but as emotions start to run wild between the two lovers, matters of murder become more complicated and soon start to affect the hunter as well as the hunted.
The Hollywood gossip around this film thus far has been about the explicit sex and the fact that it received an NC-17 rating. Though I’ve always despised the MPAA’s evaluation system (especially after that outrageous ‘cigarette smoking’ regulation), I think this is one of the most contemptible assessments on sex I’ve seen in some time.
Yeah, there are many sex scenes, but although there isn’t anything too graphic (everything is simulated), the impact these scenes have on the story is rather surprising. Filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni once said in an interview that eroticism was the disease of our age. With this in mind, Lee clearly exhibits the insufficiency of sexual encounters as a means of moral communication.
Paying Attention Pays Off
Lee has focused deeply on detail in the props and dialogue, whose meanings become so delightfully visible, I was reminded of the subtitle scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Watch Lee’s particular use of Wong Chia’s lipstick that’s left on the glasses she drinks from; the underlying connotation is deliberate enough, and the more you focus on the significance of the subtext, the more there is to appreciate.
With a stellar cast and striking cinematography, there is so much credit to go around for the artistic success. Overall, it was the rich symbolism amidst the powerful character drama that truly made this film beautiful to watch, which you’ll probably from the edge of your seat.