Ang Lee, the director of such films as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, “Brokeback Mountain” and “Hulk” is not someone prepared to shy away from a “controversial” subject matter in his films.
Wang (newcomer Wei Tang) is just starting college in Hong Kong when she is asked to join a theater group. She agrees because she is attracted to the charismatic leader Kuang (Lee-Hom Wang). Then, World War II begins and much of their lives are changed by the threat of Japanese invasion. Flash forward a few years and Wang and the theater group have become a sort of small resistance force. They decide to try to infiltrate the inner circle of a prominent businessman, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung, “In The Mood for Love”, “Infernal Affairs”), who has been aiding the Japanese. Their ticket in? To make Wang into a seductive woman who will become a possible mistress to Mr. Yee. Wang becomes a part of Mrs. Yee’s (Joan Chen) inner circle and plays mah jong with them on a regular basis. Every time, Mr. Yee is in the room, Wang cautiously flirts with him. Just as their relationship is about to bloom, the Yee’s move to Shanghai. As the war worsens, Wang also finds herself in Shanghai and the resistance group has renewed interest in Mr. Yee; as the head of the police force, he has become a pawn to the invading Japanese, helping them maintain their hold on the Chinese people. Wang becomes a part of the Yee household again and their affair blooms. But can Wang, an inexperienced country girl, keep from actually falling in love with the man she despises?
In “Lust, Caution” Ang Lee tries to push the envelope once again in another controversial way. The film has a very explicit depiction of sex, and also some graphic violence. First, it is sad that we even have to label this film “controversial” based on the sexual aspect of the story. Yes, there is a lot of sex and some of it is very graphic, but why does this automatically earn the “controversial” label for the film? This is just as stupid as giving “Brokeback Mountain” the same label because it depicts a gay relationship. I don’t think adults who see this film will not see sexual acts they have not participated in. The shocking thing about “Lust” is that we are so used to seeing bodies grinding against one another before the film cuts to a shot of the couple laughing or sharing a cigarette that when we see an actual depiction of a sexual act in a film, it is a bit shocking.
The sexual aspect of their relationship is also a natural extension of the story and doesn’t seem all that gratuitous. Wang is trying to infiltrate the life of Mr. Yee, to become close to him, to earn his confidence and discover his vulnerabilities. If a man has a mistress, they will have sex, so it really shouldn’t come as a shock to watch the two engage in sexual activity. But because we have seen so little of this type of explicit activity on screen, it is a little shocking.
“Lust, Caution” deftly mixes aspects of an espionage thriller with the relationship between Wang and Mr. Yee. As the events of war unfold, and people become more and more desperate, we understand why the resistance would make a second attempt to try to get at Mr. Yee. When Wang meets with the leader of the resistance, the first thing he does is hand her a cyanide tablet. “Sew this in to your clothes. Just in case” he instructs her. She willingly goes along with the plan, despite the danger, and accepts the tablet.
As we watch Wang go from simple country girl to sophisticated city woman, her cover, it is more than a little amazing to watch the transformation into seductive mistress. She looks completely different and is so determined to be successful at her mission, she is determined to create a believable character who will charm Mr. Yee off his feet. Wei Tang is very good as Wang making us believe in her skill and determination. We see how all of these lies and stories begin to affect her. But she continues on.
Tony Leung is also very good as Mr. Yee. Initially, his wife is present whenever he sees Wang, so he has to maintain a certain distance. But he is also the male figure in a society where women have less rights, so he doesn’t have to be all that concerned about discovery. He seems to be more covert to protect the feelings of his wife, yet she clearly has a feeling for what is going on.
I even liked Joan Chen, and I almost never enjoy her work in any of the films I have seen. In “Lust”, she plays Mrs. Yee, a woman who realizes she has a certain amount of power, in her circle, and doesn’t care about lording it over her ‘friends’. Her power comes from her husband’s position and she realizes this, so when she begins to realize something is going on, she allows it continue for a number of reasons. Would she be able to stop it? Don’t most men cheat on their wives?
When Mr. Yee and Wang begin their relationship, Mr. Yee is clearly hungry for some sexual release. As Wang has little experience, he takes charge of this part of the relationship proving to be an “aggressive” lover, but she is a quick learner.
As I watched the film, I realized how meticulously well it is produced. Every detail about the areas of Hong Kong and Shanghai these characters inhabit is completely believable. You really get a sense for this long gone era and the way these characters live and deal with the restrictions that come with the war.
Unfortunately, this great attention to detail also points out a flaw in the film. In a story about two people falling in love, you shouldn’t really be able to be distracted by the production detail. Especially an explicit film about a sexual relationship. There are a couple of things missing which seem to be key to elevating the film from very good to memorable.
Throughout, we never really see why Mr. Yee is so hated by this group. They talk about it, and we can understand why based on these conversations, but we never see an example of it, of his power, of his menace, of his wrong doing. Because this is missing, there isn’t as much of a feeling of danger throughout. When they are in Hong Kong, the group has to deal with someone who is blackmailing them, and this helps to create some suspense. But Mr. Yee is the main target and we need to see him do something causing someone harm or danger to give us a feeling Wang’s life is threatened every moment she spends with Mr. Yee.
Also, the trailer hints at Wang having feelings for Mr. Yee. The story seems to want her to be in conflict; initially, she is simply supposed to enter his life, win his affection and learn something allowing the group to take their target out. And this becomes a pivotal moment in the story. But we never get this feeling from Wang. She apparently does have feelings for the man she was supposed to simply seduce, based on some of her actions late in the film, but we never see evidence of this in her eyes, in her body language, so we don’t believe she is ever in love with him.
Because we never believe they are in love, “Lust” loses some of the eroticism it wants to sizzle our eyes with; without love it is simply sex. Watching sex without intimacy is less interesting.
“Lust, Caution” is a very good film, but it lacks the intimacy it wants to have to make it a truly memorable film.