For his latest feature, Lust, Caution, Ang Lee returns to China for another tale of forbidden love with far-reaching consequences. A master of restraint and unrequited feeling only rivaled by James Ivory, Lee has previously mined the American suburbs (The Ice Storm) and traditional Chinese kung-fu stories (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) to examine the damage that individuals do to themselves and others by not following the feelings they have pent up inside of them. On the other hand, he most recently went to Wyoming and used the fading myth of the Old West in Brokeback Mountain to see what would happen if two cowboys indulged their passions (albeit in secret). In that case, society had a dire penalty waiting for the lovers, and so it is again in Lee's new film. Lust, Caution is more like a warning than a title, and though the plot is not entirely new, the setting is one that isn't commonly imported to American cinemas.
Set at the tail-end of WWII, Lust, Caution takes place in Hong Kong and Shanghai, when both the British and the Japanese were occupying powers. Naturally, a good portion of the Chinese populace are not happy with this state of affairs, and an underground resistance movement slowly grinds toward liberation. At the center of this is Wang (newcomer Wei Tang), a beautiful college girl who lost her mother to the war and whose father is living in exile in England.
At school, Wang gets involved in an agitprop theatre troupe. The drama club's handsome leader Kuang (Lee-Hom Wang) is not content with just inspiring people to spout slogans, however, he decides they should become full-blown revolutionaries. He sets his sights on a former friend, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai from 2046), who has joined the collaborationist government. The kids set up an elaborate ruse whereby Wang poses as the wife of another traitor, allowing her to cozy up to Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen, Twin Peaks). This begins a three-year game of cat and mouse that sucks Wang deeper into the resistance while pushing her into Yee's bed.
As a story idea, Lust, Caution reminds me of Paul Verhoeven's Dutch take on a very similar premise in Black Book earlier this year. Though, where Verhoeven indulged his more puerile instincts and used a lame whodunit plot to graft a happy ending onto his story, Ang Lee's movie is far more realistic and rich. Both films question the things we ask of our women in times of war, but Verhoeven didn't have the good graces to be repulsed by his own answer. He instead made his Nazi captain a charming individual who would be a much nicer guy in a much nicer time, and that way we didn't have to feel oogey when he took the beautiful spy to bed. Leung's Mr. Yee, on the other hand, is a much more complex case of self-loathing and sadism. Cinephiles will appreciate some of the subtle hints Lee gives us to decode his movie, delivered with movie posters and film screenings attended the romantic Wang. Casablanca is the idealized version of this story, where the men stand up and take it on the chin rather than let their women debase themselves, and the Cary Grant of Suspicion evokes the heartthrob who may or may not want to stop your own heart from throbbing.
Wei Tang should hopefully have an incredible career ahead of her, because she is breathtaking as the tragic heroine of Lust, Caution. In one powerful scene, she attempts to tell Kuang and his upper-management boss Old Wu (Chung Hua Tou) exactly what she has been going through so that they understand fully what it means when they ask her to stay with Yee, and the men have to leave the room, they find the details too unpleasant. This would be a meaningless moment if the actress couldn't sell the shame she feels, but at that moment, she manages to appear both broken and defiant. We want to praise her as much as we want to comfort her.
The relationship between Wang and Yee is the core of the movie, and also the source of some mini-controversy surrounding it. The pair share a couple of explicit sex scenes that earned Lust, Caution an NC-17 rating, which Ang Lee accepted rather than water down what was so important to the meaning of his movie. Honestly, I don't see what all the fuss is about. The scenes are explicit but absent of any overly gynecological detail. We barely see any of Leung's nether regions, and there is certainly nothing that even borders on pornography. Rather, the scenes are more shocking for their forcefulness and their violent nature. As if to make up for all the crap he eats toadying to his Japanese masters, Yee unleashes all of that pent-up rage in the bedroom. This doesn't mean he smacks Wang around, even though their first dalliance does involve out-and-out violence, it means he couples with her in an abusive vigor that is more damaging than any clenched fist.
It is also more alluring for Wang--and for the audience, as well. Despite the pain, she falls under Yee's spell, and the voyeuristic titillation we experience causes us to question our own attraction to seeing two naked bodies entangled in such a manner. Tony Leung, who is always fantastic, is incredibly daring to trade on his own star appeal in so dangerous a fashion.
Really, though, these scenes are a mere sliver of a movie that is over two-and-a-half hours long, and that the MPAA has fixated on them as usual says more about who they are than it does about the movie itself. The sex is only a small portion of the psychological quagmire Wang finds herself in, and as a whole, Lust, Caution is more about studying the ravages of war on the individual than it is about rough lovemaking. With this theme and with this setting, Ang Lee takes his artistic exploration to whole new levels of complexity and grace. Though his movies have been emotionally devastating in the past, he has never been so brutal with his audience. The final, poetic shot of Lust, Caution is like an open-palmed punch to the chest, and it's all the more so for the fact that it features no actors and no words are spoken. If you don't feel utterly drained when you see it, torn between heartbreak and anger, then you somehow either missed the point of the preceding 155 minutes or you should check to make sure the projectionist didn't run the wrong movie.
When Oscar time comes around, Lust, Caution will likely show up in the Foreign Language category, but as with Crouching Tiger, Lee should be in contention for the top prize. It's a silly distinction anyway. When movies are this good, they transcend language. Lust, Caution is up there with the best of the year, period.