While I will immediately admit that I found Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution a disappointment—especially compared to Brokeback Mountain (2005)—I have to also admit that it’s a disappointment of extreme artistic merit. For that matter, any film that can hold my attention during a screening that started after midnight for 158 minutes is doing something very right somewhere. It’s certainly worth noting that this is an absolutely gorgeous film and would be worth watching simply for the images conjured up by Lee and his Brokeback cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto—all of which are enhanced by Alexandre Desplat’s musical score. In many respects, it’s a film that’s hard to fault—but maybe that’s the problem with it.
In essence, it’s a pulpy espionage story—the kind of trashy thriller that old Hollywood filmmakers could transmute into a kind of art 70 years ago. Think about movies like Lewis Milestone’s The General Died at Dawn (1935) or, better still, Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) and you’re in the ballpark. In fact, if Lust, Caution resembles anything, it resembles a Sternberg picture. Newcomer Wei Tang may be no Marlene Dietrich (the focus of Sternberg’s attention from 1930 through 1935), but the film with its wholly created world, its attention to detail, its casual exoticism, its obsessive sexuality, its opaque characters and its fairly silly plot is very much in the Sternberg mold. The difference is that Sternberg would have reduced the story to its 80-minute essence, explained even less than Lee does, and yet somehow he’d have made the fates of his lead characters of vital concern to the audience. It’s this last trick that Lee can’t seem to pull off.
It’s hard to care at all about what happens to novice spy and would-be assassin Wong Chia Chi (Wei Tang) and her quarry Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai). It’s impossible to care deeply. What’s truly odd about this is that Sternberg was openly cynical about his characters and his material while the more humanistic Lee takes both seriously. Perhaps he takes them too seriously. Lee clearly recognizes that there’s a thematic connection between his characters here and the equally doomed lovers of Brokeback Mountain—both sets of characters are caught up in an affair that’s unacceptable to the society in which they live—but in Lust, Caution he never gets under their skin. As a result, the characters never get under ours.
The drama remains strangely dispassionate. Yet just as strangely, it’s never less than entertaining. Despite its convolutions, the story itself is very simple. Wong Chia Chi is a student who gets involved with a politically active dramatic group that decides to go from rousing propaganda stage productions to active participation against those collaborating with the Japanese. Their plan is to present her as the wealthy Mrs. Mak (her husband always out of the picture on some mysterious business trip) who will seduce the powerful collaborator Mr. Yee, putting him in a position where they can assassinate him.
The central problem is that none of these kids—and that’s what they are—have the first clue about what they’re doing. Their early efforts—including the necessary deflowering of Wong Chia Chi so Yee won’t discover that Mrs. Mak is actually a virgin—are almost comical. At one point—when they panic over the supposed opportunity of killing Yee—the movie actually veers toward ridiculous slapstick, but it’s slapstick that quickly turns deadly. Taking up with more seasoned activists, their plan actually takes form, which is where the film seriously concerns itself with the strange sadomasochistic relationship between Wong Chia Chi and Yee.
This is also where the film gained its notoriety for the sex scenes that garnered it an NC-17 rating. While the rating is understandable, the scenes in question aren’t likely to shock anyone who remembers films from the late 1960s and early 1970s. In other words, there’s nothing here you didn’t see in the days when filmmakers were first exploring the newfound freedom of the ratings system—and what we see looks frankly more uncomfortable than erotic. The essence of the film becomes this mutually destructive relationship—one that Lee’s characters play out to its inevitable conclusion. But that conclusion lacks the power it needs to push Lust, Caution into the realm of greatness for which Lee is obviously striving. It gets near it, and in so doing gives us a film worth seeing, but it falls shy of giving us a film to treasure. Rated NC-17 for explicit sexuality.