"Lust, Caution" is an epic of doomed but ferociously sexy romance.
The locales for Ang Lee's stately, sublime "Lust, Caution" are World War II Shanghai and Hong Kong, but its roots are as much in Hitchcock as in Chinese history. Set in affluent, Westernized districts with cafes, cinemas and European fashions that recall wartime London or Paris, it begins as the kind of elegant spy romance that could have starred Ingrid Bergman.
A simmering tension builds as a spy (the exquisite Tang Wei) weaves a seductive web to trap a powerful collaborator (cool, calculating Tony Leung). Then, when we've been lulled by its refined tone and languid pace, Lee pulls the rug out from under us with brutal, bloody murder and ferocious scenes of explicit sadomasochistic sex. Even more surprisingly, Lee handles those lurid sequences with impeccable artistic integrity. Like the martial arts battles in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," they are essential to our understanding of the characters.
Tang makes a stunning debut as Wang Chia Chi, an actress whose patriotic student troupe moves its opposition to the Japanese occupation off the stage and into real life. They make an assassination target of the Chinese collaborationist government's spy chief, Mr. Yee (Leung, a George Clooney-size superstar in Asia).
Acting the part of a wealthy merchant's wife, Wang enters Mrs. Yee's social circle, where gossip about official power plays and trade blockades circulates during afternoons of shopping and mah-jongg. When Yee drops by the parlor to pay his respects, Wang begins to turn his head. She pursues Yee, who trusts no one, on and off for three years. In the meantime, she witnesses the student actors blundering their way through a horrific killing that tests her convictions. When she finally meets Yee in a barren love nest, he lashes her with his belt as if he were brutalizing a suspect. Are her gasps and post- coital smile genuine or part of a performance? He can't tell; nor can we, nor possibly she.
Their physical intimacy acts as a catalyst toward love, while patriotism, ideology and morality become irrelevant. Yee repeatedly slips away from his bodyguards, exposing himself to danger to be alone with her. Wang confesses to the menacing Communist agent who becomes her controller that while she yearns for Yee's death, he has wormed his way into her heart. We are left to decide who is more cruel to Wang: Yee, a traitor whose savage lovemaking is shot through with moments of tenderness, or the resistance fighters who pushed her into his arms.
The couple's passion becomes their only respite from the war's approaching annihilation. It's as much an epic of doomed, forbidden love as Lee's "Brokeback Mountain," and every bit as well-acted. Tang, scarcely off-camera for a moment, transforms herself from a naive schoolgirl to skilled seductress to conflicted lover on the verge of hysteria without hitting a false note. And Leung, who plays Yee with his characteristic melancholy reserve, brings a surprising ferocity to his fearless sex scenes.
You don't often see the kind of meticulous craftsmanship that has been lavished on this film. Pan Lai's sets are striking and sophisticated, Alexandre Desplat's score has the haunting feel of a film noir thriller, and Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography is as glossy and sophisticated as one of Wang's form-fitting cheongsams. The script, from Hui-ling Wang and James Schamus, presents the story's moral riddles in all their complexity, hiding important clues to character in a subtle glance or a tossed-off line of dialogue. It's 158 minutes long, and worth every languorous second.
Colin Covert 612-673-7186