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Lust, Caution

Spying and sex in Ang Lee’s latest genre-hop

A film review by Damon Wise, Empire

Lust, Caution (Se, jie)

Se, jie
USA, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, 2007
Director Ang Lee
Starring Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Wei Tang, Joan Chen, Lee-Hom Wang

The year is 1942 in occupied Shanghai, and a society woman walks into a cafe and makes a phone call. In flashback, we discover that she is Wong Chia Chi (Tang), a drama student turned spy on a secret mission to facilitate the assassination of Mr Yee (Leung), a hated collaborator.

You have to marvel at Ang Lee’s ability to take short stories and turn them into modern epics, as he did with Brokeback Mountain and has done again with this steamy take on Eileen Chang’s 68-page not-even-a-novella. Is he transported by parking tickets? Is every menu he reads a potential Lawrence Of Arabia? If we sent him three postcards would he give you the new Lord Of The Rings trilogy? But however the muse strikes him, Lee is one of the few directors working today who actually seems to have a handle on the concept of time, and though Lust, Caution has its seeming longueurs, this is a film of deceptive subtlety that springs shut in its final moments like a steel trap.

Working in his native Mandarin again, Lee is clearly having fun with audience preconceptions, opening his film with a mah jong game that, though it reveals plenty about the milieu we’re about to move in, will pose quite a challenge for slow readers of subtitles. It will also baffle those who have heard only that this is Lee’s most sexually explicit film to date. Given that Lee’s forte so far has been turning his hand to every possible genre and sub-genre — literary adaptation (Sense And Sensibilty), the Western (Ride With The Devil), comic book movie (Hulk) — one could be forgiven for thinking, after reading the advance press, that here, at last, is the master craftsman’s porno.

But although it does tip its hat to Nagisa Oshima’s erotic classic Ai No Corrida (In The Realm Of The Senses) when the raunchiness finally arrives, this is not a film about sex but about sacrifice and obsession. Providing the first half of this equation is Tang Wei, a beautiful first-timer who is quite extraordinary in the role of Wong. Sent to infiltrate the household of Mr Yee, a governor responsible for the deaths of many Chinese rebels, Wong has a number of masks to wear at any given time, first persuading Mrs Yee that she is a socialite named Mrs Mak, and ultimately responding to Mr Yee’s vicious and, visually, shocking advances. Finally, she has to deal with the radical underground movement that is paying her — but is she still happy to be a pawn in their game?

Playing opposite her and sparking off this delicate, nuanced performance is Hong Kong star Tony Leung as the wolfish Mr Yee. To those used to seeing Leung as a melancholy matinee idol in the films of Wong Kar-Wei — most notably the lush, romantic In The Mood For Love, in which he played a shy, sympathetic cuckold — his work here is extraordinary, unleashing a previously hidden and wholly uncharacteristic mean streak. But as time unfolds, My Yee’s cruelty stops being simply vile and starts to become fascinating, and even paradoxical, infusing a potentially two-dimensional moustache-twirling villain with humanity and pathos, leading to a terrific, unexpectedly amusing scene in a jewellery shop when Wong’s conflicting emotions finally boil over. However, this is not a feelgood story of beauty meeting beast, and when Wong’s facade eventually breaks down, Lee’s story finally jerks into a focus. It may seem like a long time getting there, but when Lust, Caution finally reels you in, the payoff is both provocative and satisfying. More importantly, you may find yourself heading for the door thinking, maybe, just maybe, you could have sat through just a little bit more…

A beautifully rendered, long, drawn-out but ultimately very satisfying story of betrayal and revenge in an uneasy setting of wartime paranoia.