Set in China amidst the Japanese occupation during World War II, Ang Lee's Chinese language adaptation of Eileen Chang's novella first drops us in the middle of a game of Mahjong between several wealthy wives. A simple game of clanking tiles becomes a terse battle of wits and austerity right before our eyes, immediately setting the unnerving tone of the film. Wong Chai Chi (Tang Wei), aka Mrs. Mak Tai Tai, excuses herself to go for coffee at a Westernized café. She walks to the restaurant's phone, mumbles a bit to her "brother", and sparks an undisclosed revolutionary event with a cluster of radicals awaiting her code-laced phonecall. It's an aggressive act long in the making - one that would set the gears in motion to claim the life of a powerful Japanese collaborator (Tony Leung).
Wong Chia Chi's origin story is told through flashback form over a four year period prior to this culmination, starting back to when she was a young student at a university and progressing forward to the film's current time. It follows her life's transition from a young girl easily influenced by the director of a propaganda play (Lee-Hom Wang) to the throws of revolutionary activity. As a cluster of actors and students turned revolutionaries following the success of their show, this small band of devotees decides to target Mr. Yee, an official suspected of bridging a gap to the Japanese. Vaguely reminiscent of Spielberg's Munich or even Barreto's Four Days in September, Lust, Caution humanizes this activist group to such a heartfelt degree that we grow to appreciate each member for their slight peculiarities. When the clan makes the decision to craft Wong Chia Chi into a sort of mistress for the married Mr. Yee in an attempt at assassination, the pain they felt escapes their glances perfectly. It makes certain, however, to unabashedly draw out enamored attention to Wong Chia Chi.
Tang Wei's freshman role as Wong Chia Chi is a flat-out revelation of the highest accord. Forged with Lee's direction as the melding hammer, her emblazoned magnetism creates a formidable heroine in the midst of transformation. Instead of specifically concentrating on her capacity to cope with being undercover or being a revolutionary, Tang's performance and Lee's direction craft a strong cornerstone in Wong Chia Chi that show her writhing struggle to weld onto each persona. Her portrayal is filled with constrained emotions, featuring facial cues that seep like daggers into the nerves. She commands visual attention through her voluminous gazes and grasping warmth, all behind a character that neither stands strong as an actress or a revolutionary. Her character is nothing more than a girl, a talented girl, who spreads herself scathingly thin to achieve what she can in this world. Make no mistake, Lust, Caution is purely Wong Chia Chi's story about deception and her distress with being a seductive, malleable pawn for the Chinese revolution.
Lust, Caution delves deep into the expanses of the human spirit's willingness to both find importance and sacrifice itself for that purpose. It's a common theme in Lee's films to stretch the human nature towards its boundaries for what it believes in. Actually, it's a common thread in film, period; however, there's a certain delicacy and stringency behind Lee's directorial hand that makes his films vastly more impacting than many others about similar material. He lets the complicated relationship between a spy and her target develop into something haunting. As a result, the sparks between Mr. Yee and the undercover Wong Chia Chi offer some of the more understated complexities captured on film. Even from the first scene in which we see Tony Leung sit across from Tang Wei as their respective characters, the tension in the air seems nearly thick enough to slice with a knife. As Mr. Yee, Leung rustles up one of his more poignant, darker performances. He carries himself with vast darkness and ominous paranoia, characteristics not normally associated with Leung's typical characters a la Infernal Affairs and In the Mood for Love. Even at his most disarming points in the film, Mr. Yee's still barely on the verge of amicability.
Yet, it's not an interpersonal relationship you're really ever supposed to feel comfortable with, which is one of the cleverest and holistically intriguing elements of Lee's film. "Chemistry" isn't really the right word to describe Mr. Yee and Wong Chia Chi's mélange, yet there are plenty of fireworks. It's more akin to two speeding vehicles grinding against each other; both accelerate erratically, submersed in the fiery sparks of their affair, towards a tumultuous result. Much like such an affair, Lust, Caution powers forward with a velocity that really takes your breath away until its heartbreaking framework crashes upon itself.
But boy, is it a beautiful ride. Immediately noticeable once the music surfaces is the sumptuousness of Alexandre Desplat's craftsmanship with the score, which reminds me alot of his work with Curran's The Painted Veil. It thunders with deep drums and flickers with glittering nuances at all the right points, swirling and swaying with the '40s essence gently present across the film. Not quite as readily identifiable, but understandable once the credits roll, is the photography work from cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. He seems to pleasantly scatter his work between Lee, with his incredible work on Brokeback Mountain, and Alfonso Gonzales Inarritu, in which he shot all of his "moral trilogy" (Babel, 21 Grams, Amores Perros). Prieto captures the film's colorfully muted and expansive WWII-era sheen in such a way that it feels simple, comfortable even in its graceful and, at times, depressive beauty.
At well over two and a half hours long, Lust, Caution is a modernist epic, yet its tense espionage momentum makes the time tick by quicker than you'd probably like. Hardly a gun is shot or a weapon drawn, but the veracity behind this cloak and dagger dance between Mr. Yee and Wong Chia Chi clearly leaves a lasting impression of exasperated conflict once Ang Lee's film comes to a melancholy climax. It's a rather straightforward plot of scheming and detriment to China's wartime woes, but the humanist complexity lying underneath Lust, Caution's personal affairs makes its intrinsic perception a wholly gratifying experience. Quite simply, Lust, Caution is a damn fine film that twisted my nerves and squeezed my heart without relent.
Personal Feelings on the NC-17 Rating (minor spoilers):
Does Lust, Caution earn this stigma? Visually, it meagerly achieves the standing. You see plenty of skin and several points of brusque intimacy, including lengthy expanses of lavish lovemaking along with a scene of rather rough intercourse. However, it's within the contextual and discomforting emotions that each scenario infuses with the visuals that the NC-17 rating earns its merit here. Plus, the passionate scenes can spiral into a real fury of eroticism. It's all done quite tastefully, not to mention rather skillfully, but still might be a bit discomforting for some.
Universal and Focus Features showcase Lust, Caution in a standard keepcase presentation with its expected look - void of discart, void of chapter listing.
Lust, Caution was originally slated to come with a matching high-definition release in the same 1.85:1 image. It's hard to imagine how stellar such a pristine, uber-detailed version of this print would look, because Lust, Caution is a gorgeously shot film. I mention this because this anamorphic widescreen presentation on this standard DVD leaks through plenty of the fine details, nuances, and overall magnificence of the film's visual splendors quite well on its own merit. There's only one or two minor problems, namely with a little bit of noise and edge enhancement that pop up in a few places. Outside of that, the color replication and level of detailed sharpness is astounding. Ang Lee played with a lot of blues and tans in Lust, Caution's palette, and never do they seem washed out or unpolished through this presentation.
Bear in mind that Lust, Caution's Dolby 5.1 presentation hinged primarily on an exquisite score and immersive dialogue. There's not a lot of action filling the speakers, but the expansiveness of this surround track make the film's audio seem much more active than it truly is. Little sound effects, like chirping birds, ticking watches, and the tickling of flames, surprised me with their clarity. There's a few instances where the vocals were a tad on the muffled side, but overall the Mandarin dialect (as well as the others sporadically used) is quite strong. Most impressive, however, is how amazing Alexandre Desplat's fantastic score sounded. As I said before, it reminded me a lot of his work on The Painted Veil, which is equally as mesmerizing and a very high compliment to Lust, Caution's musical accompaniment. Optional subtitles are available in English, SDH, French, and Spanish, while a French 5.1 track is also available.
Universal and Focus Features have impressed me with the performance qualities on this disc, up until now. Instead of delving into the film's expansive context and content, all we're working with is one mildly solid feature:
Tiles of Deception, Lurid Affections:
This pseudo making-of featurette runs about 17 minutes long and features several interviews spliced in between scenes from the film. Ang Lee gets a fair amount of time in this work, taking about the selection process in finding his leading lady and a few other interesting tidbits. Tang Wei, Tony Leung, and the rest of the cast express their feelings for Lee and his work, just as Lee and his producers circumvent about the cast. It's very happy, gushing, and relatively surface-level. In short, this featurette reeks of double-dip syndrome from Universal. As scant as this feature is, it is anamorphic - but interlaced.
Lust, Caution might be my favorite of Ang Lee's films. Its rich atmosphere, focused performances, and sensual period aesthetics enveloped me to such a degree in the narrative that I couldn't shake its guttural impact. Leung and Tang are, redundantly, absolutely fantastic in their roles, which really makes a film about a troubled and dangerous relationship all the more evocative. Universal and Focus Features have polished the transfer well for this, but left the extra material in a box ready for another edition somewhere down the road. Even with the mediocre little feature, the film's quality and disc's performance make Lust, Caution very Highly Recommended. Just a cluster of solid extra supplements could've raised this disc's prestige a hair higher.