Director Ang Lee is a restless spirit. His twelve films have seen him change genres faster than most of us change our underwear. His past films include a big budget comic book adaptation, a Chinese martial arts epic, a Civil War drama, an Academy Award winning period piece, and, of course, the gay cowboy movie. He’s on the move again for his new film, Lust, Caution, this time to 1940s Shanghai.
Based on a short story by Eileen Chang, Lust, Caution is a sprawling espionage thriller set in WWII-era Shanghai. A young freedom fighter, Wang Jiazhi (Tang Wei), places herself in harm’s way to infiltrate the life of a powerful political figure, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung). Their relationship becomes complicated when her hatred leads to a twisted kind of respect, and perhaps even love.
Lust, Caution is a beautifully made, ambitious film, but doesn’t have quite enough interesting story to warrant its two-and-a-half-hour running time. Lee takes his time setting up the story, slowly drawing the viewer into a world of political intrigue. He carefully sets the stage, using film language borrowed from the great political thrillers of the 1940s and lighting leading lady Tang Wei as though she was a femme fatale from a film noir.
For my money he’s too cautious with the set up. The first hour, while beautiful looking, is unfocussed and rambling. The essence of the story is quite simple, and in some ways bears a striking similarity to the Paul Verhoeven film Black Book from earlier this year. We have a politically aware young woman who uses her feminine charms to woo a highly placed enemy. She hates him enough to want him dead, and yet is entranced by him. The emotion is complicated, but the story isn’t.
It should also be mentioned that Lee has not shied away from the sexual nature of the unusual couple’s relationship. The sex scenes can only be described as just this side of hard-core, and certainly contains more S&M than you usually get from Academy Award winning directors.
Lust, Caution has its moments—the brutal stabbing of a suspected spy, some beautifully directed scenes of the women passing the time by playing mah jong—and some charismatic performances from its leads, but is too diluted to be truly effective or moving.