Ang Lee has rapidly ascended as one of my preferred modern directors by invoking his films, especially his relationship-based dramas, with a momentum that keeps the gears in motion until the credits roll. Lust, Caution (Se, Jie), notorious for being the NC-17 triumphant black sheep at the Venice Film Festival, could quite possibly be one of his best, if at the very least one of his most sprawling and visually ensnaring. In the tradition of Brokeback Mountain and The Ice Storm, Lee's newest film plays with tension, provocation, and emotional desperation in ways which the human psyche and emotive neuroses can barely cope. Much like its predecessors, Lust, Caution is an affective, sensual tour de force that's one of the best films of 2007, with one of the most enthralling performances of the year as well.
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.
Around the time during the high-definition format wars, word popped up regarding Universal releasing an HD-DVD of Lust, Caution, only to fold these plans in a growingly uncertain climate. Because of this, Lust, Caution has been wedged within a humdrum cluster of films that many would likely upgrade with a quality improvement -- but only with noticeable shifts. The Asian Blu-ray market, however, swooped in to "save the day", most noticeably in this beautifully-designed Korean Region A disc from ART Service that works seamlessly in North American players. While Korean characters can be seen on the packaging, the sheer attractiveness of the artwork, both inner and outer, more than masks that little aesthetic quibble. Included is a splendid little two-sided booklet that doubles as a mini-poster.
ART Service's Blu-ray has Chinese, Korean, and English text on its menu navigation system, making it easy for all languages to maneuver while still staying attractive. The film's title track plays while an animated menu packdrop alternates between footage featuring actors from the film, determined by whichever of them is featured standing next to the image box. Note: For reference, the film's runtime sits at 2:38:14 (157+minutes), which matches up with Ang Lee's original NC-17 vision.
Video and Audio:
Though shown theatrically and made available from Universal in an aspect ratio sitting right at 1.85:1, Lust, Caution actually comes from ART Service (by way of Chinese distributor Edko) with a lightly-expanded 1.78:1 presentation for this Blu-ray that opens up the negative a hair so that the print can cover the entire viewing space. It's a rich 1080p AVC encode, one that has ample time to exercise many points of detail, contrast fluctuation, as well as flushed and desaturated hues. Several points of minutiae clarity caught my eye from the start, such as wear and tear on the Mahjong tiles that can't be seen in standard definition, while an ample level of film grain draped over the image splendidly. As the women sit and play their nudge-nudge, wink-wink power struggle game in an interestingly-lit room, several points of contrast differences display a broad range of shadows and flesh tone/makeup gradients. It looks very good up until this point, showing off many of the subtle jumps in quality that would show up across the entirety of this transfer. Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography pops with a much more filmic resonance in the heightened resolution, even through milder adjustments to some already-great scenes.
But then, there's a shot of Tang Wei with her head next to a set of red flowers, wearing an opalescent blue/purple gown with ornate jewelry as she moves in front of a green backdrop accented by a dark wood wainscot. At that point, it was obvious that several scenes in Lust, Caution would show tremendous blasts of high-definition splendor -- this scene being one of them, as it really drives home an incredible punch in the visual precision department. Blasts of naturally-saturated color, as well as splendidly-conceived period costume design and set design all show off the strengths exhibited in the interior shots. Exterior shots, many of which take place in a shimmering classic car, look nearly as breathtaking. Elements like barbed wire, granules on tire treads, architectural textures, and glossy metallic accents all show off the same level of breathtaking strength. On a more technical level, color solidity looks great in both blasts of primary and secondary colors as well as in vastly more natural skin tones, while no signs of edge enhancement or noise reduction could be spotted anywhere on the print. This is a truly marvelous presentation for this equally mesmerizing film, one rich with delicate improvements over the standard-definition presentation as well as its share of breathtaking high-definition moments.
To accompany this visual achievement, two high-quality audio tracks are available -- Chinese PCM 7.1 and DTS HD Master Audio 7.1 presentations. On a blind test, it would be nearly impossible to differentiate between the two audio tracks; however, when listening intently to both with knowledge of their content, a slight edge can be given to the Master Audio track for a mild boost in expansiveness. Both, however, are absolutely astounding steps above the Dolby Digital 6.1 EX track included, which ousts even the audio track on Universal's standard-definition presentation. One powerhouse element to the film is its sweeping score from the always-reliable Alexandre Desplat, which undoubtedly gets a more vigorous workout in this track. It accompanies subtle sound effects -- like the tapping of a crowd's feet as they walk into a concert hall, or the whispers and clanks of glass cups in a café -- which makes for a pleasingly complete sound design. This step-up also includes a boost in outdoor environmental effects, like the rattling of a rickety train or the falling of rain, which stretch out across the soundstage. Verbal clarity also shines in this offering, exhibiting well-pitched ranges that never distort no matter the intensity level. In comparison to its competition, Lust, Caution now showcases a entrancingly robust surround experience. Subtitles, which are grammatically excellent and presented in unobtrusive, well-paced lines, are available in English, Chinese and Korean.
Tiles of Deception, Lurid Affections (17:01, MPEG-2 SD):
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. ART's presentation of the featurette might look a little better, preserved in an MPEG-2
Also available is a gallery of Trailers, highlighted by an attractive-presented International Trailer, a letterbox Asia Trailer, and a stretched Korean trailer -- all of which contain the same content. A few Korean and Hong Kong TV Spots are also included in the mix, as well as an animated, non-navigational Photo and Poster Gallery that lasts a hair under four (4) minutes.
Looking back on numerous experiences with Lust, Caution, it still remains a resonant picture and, quite possibly, my favorite among Ang Lee's repertoire. 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 Wei are, redundantly, absolutely fantastic in their roles, which really makes a film about a troubled and dangerous relationship all the more evocative.
ART Service has delivered the digital goods that make this Blu-ray package a satisfying bump above its standard-definition alternatives, while also sporting a few slight earmarks in the supplement arena. It's a great presentation of a phenomenal film, one that's Highly Recommended for import if the wait for a domestic Blu-ray of Ang Lee's war-torn epic romance proves to be too hard to manage. It's still a little pricey for a Blu-ray low on special features, but that's the only stumbling block that keeps it away from being a must-own disc.