“Lust, Caution” – A.J. Hakari

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows showed viewers that the life of a spy was not one necessarily filled with feats of James Bondian derring-do. A lot it involves waiting, painstakingly biding one’s time until the perfect moment to strike arises. Unfortunately, as good as the film was, this approach often made it flat-out boring to watch. Not so with director Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, which doesn’t make the error of mistaking quiet tension for periods of sheer inactivity, ratcheting up the suspense surrounding the lead character’s situation bit by subtle bit. Lust, Caution is delicate filmmaking at its finest, a tale that, thanks to its crisp storytelling and enthralling performances, pays off in being put together at a leisurely pace.

 

Our story begins in Shanghai, circa 1942. The ravishing Mak Tai Tai (Tang Wei) sits at a mahjong table amongst her friends and fellow privileged wives, looking up to steal a couple of knowing glances with the handsome Mr. Yee (Tony Leung). As the two part ways, later to meet for a romantic rendezvous, the film flashes back to a few years prior, when Mak Tai Tai was Wong Chia Chi, a young college student about to take her first big steps into the real world. Instead, however, she ends up falling in with a group of student radicals, whose aims begin with putting on patriotic plays but soon progress to include much loftier goals. The leader of the group (Wong Lee-Hom) wants to strike back at a Chinese political figure who’s collaborating with the Japanese to ensure the continuation of their oppressive reign. That figure turns out to be none other than Mr. Yee, and thanks to her talents onstage, Wong is chosen to infiltrate Mr. Yee’s household and get closer by seducing him. The ruse works, and in no time, Wong and Mr. Yee become involved, although as the years progress, Wong finds her loyalties being tested as she begins to actually fall in love with the very man her fellow radicals want to see dead.

 

At first glance, Lust, Caution seems to be a near-perfect, carbon copy of Paul Verhoeven’s similarly-themed Black Book. Both are World War II-era features with women taking charge, embarking on missions whose aims become blurred once they begin sleeping with the enemy. But there are definitely quite a few subtle differences setting the two pictures apart from one another. Whereas Black Book incorporated more of an exploitative edge, mixing Nazi-fighting with gratuitous nudity and having star Carice van Houten play the 1940s version of Alien’s Ripley, Lust, Caution amps up more of the story’s ambiguous aspects, resulting in an all-around more elegant and artistic piece of filmmaking. Tang Wei’s Wong Chia Chi isn’t a take-no-prisoners heroine but rather an impressionable youth thrown into a situation she wasn’t quite ready for. Certainly, the character possesses great acting skills that she incorporates into her seduction of the seemingly emotionless Mr. Yee, but Ang Lee does a masterful, understated job of showing her torn between doing her duty or following her heart.

 

As with most of his films, Lee doesn’t spell all of the characters’ inner feelings and motivations out for you in Lust, Caution. As the story entails a character concealing her emotions, so goes the film, both it and Wong herself performing a delicate balancing act so as not to slip up and blow both of their covers. True, the film is a little too centered on moments of inaction, focusing not so much on the actual act of the predators pouncing on their prey as it does on what happens in the interim. But Lee is skillful enough not to make these sections too boring, instead using them to enhance the effect of when something does happen and make it more of a surprise instead of trying to startle the viewers into being interested every five minutes with some boring action sequence that doesn’t need to be there. The film’s controversial sex scenes definitely do the job in grabbing the audience’s collective attention, although personally, they came across as just another aspect of the plot, their graphic quality really adding nothing to the plot and standing out almost to a point of annoyance. But Lust, Caution doesn’t remain a bummer for long, since almost every single moment of the film is inhabited and thus bettered by the mere presence of Tang Wei, in her debut performance projecting more sexuality, vulnerability, and dedication than a lot of actresses have mustered in their entire careers. Matched with Leung’s stoic turn as the no-nonsense Mr. Yee, Wei serves up an incredibly well-rounded, fleshed-out, and sympathetic character whose next move you have no choice but to anticipate.

 

I could go on for a paragraph or two longer about the lovely period detail, the crisp cinematography, and a little more about how I now hope that Tang Wei will one day become the future ex-Mrs. Hakari. But as most of the treasures that Lust, Caution aren’t so easily described, I’ll leave it up to you, dear readers, to uncover these sly delights all on your own.

 

Rating: ★★★½

 

-A.J. Hakari

 

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, Terror Tube, and Screen Spotlight.

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