Lust, Caution February 9, 2017
The nearly three-hour, erotically charged spy melodrama Lust, Caution (2007) is atmospheric, palpably tense, and brazenly epic — it’s the type of operatic saga that utilizes time and space as a weapon, using run-time and performative deliberation both to heighten the stakes of its story and enhance our own feelings of transportation. Being set first in Hong Kong and then in Shanghai for a period lasting from 1938-1942, it’s crucial that we become convinced that what we’re witnessing is, in fact, WWII intrigue without overdrawn cinematic glitz.
And the film’s director, the skilled Ang Lee, is plenty adroit at convincing us of the setting and of the story, which, in turn, was adapted from the Eileen Chang novella of the same name by Wang Hui-Ling and James Schamus.
It’s the movie’s length that gets to us.
Despite most of its 158 minutes being used efficiently, one can only ponder why Lee’s pace is slack for so long, why sauntering character development is made so much more vital than an accumulation of thrills. Eventually Lust, Caution builds and nearly explodes in its tension, sexual or otherwise. But a sense that it could have been a tighter, Hitchcockian thriller lingers, and we find ourselves wishing it preferred kinetic energy to languid proclivity.
It introduces itself within the walls of its above mentioned 1938 through a scene that sees a group of glamorous women playing Mah-Jongg, the conversation meaningless and the mood chipper. The get-together is being hosted by the elegant wife (Joan Chen) of Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), a controversial special agent who uses his influence to recruit for a dangerous puppet government set up by Japanese officials. But among these beautiful power-players does one woman particularly stand out. She is Mrs. Mai (Tang Wei), the wife of a business magnate.
Or so it seems. Flashbacks reveal that Mrs. Mai is, in actuality, a student actress in way over her head. After gaining critical recognition for a comprehensively patriotic play, one of her peers (Wang Leehom) decides that their acting troupe must make their dedication to their country truer, thus prompting a plot to assassinate Mr. Yee. No one much willing to put themselves on the line overtly, Mrs. Mai, born Wong Chia-chi, volunteers herself as a pawn. Her mission: seduce the villain she’s fighting against. At his most vulnerable, her cohorts will make sure that their romance ends lethally.
But alas, the conspiracy is interrupted by a violent death right as it’s about to lift off, all actions halted for nearly four years. In the 1942 era Shanghai of the film do we see the potential for death exceed far past any of the limits set by the events in 1938, not only because the plot gains traction with revolutionaries but also because Wong, who steps back into Mr. Yee’s life after being tracked down by her former comrades, develops a relationship with her enemy that painfully begins to blur her vision.
Upon release in 2007, Lust, Caution’s merit was not as much as a part of the public discussion as Lee’s veraciously staged sex scenes, which, being so unusually graphic for a feature film, earned the movie an NC-17 rating that ultimately corrupted much of its crossover appeal. In Lee’s knowing hands, they feel necessary rather than gratuitous. They communicate, better than any array of dialogue could, that the focal relationship is one that’s as equally characterized by its mixtures of hate and of passion.
Wong despises what Mr. Yee stands for, but as she gets to know him through physical connection does she start to see that the man, so caught up in his power and his fury, is distinctly aware that he could easily lose all he’s worked for in an instant — terror always seems to be lurking in his eyes.
Mr. Yee hates Wong so because she reminds him of his inability to stay faithful to his wife and because she reminds him of the extent of his political authority, which seems to both enlarge his head and frighten him all at once. As rendezvous between the two steadily metamorphose from brutal S&M sessions to more tender carnal exchanges, we can tell, in ways not expressed by scenes of conversation, that the pair awakens something in one another. And that dynamic is fascinating, considering the way it’s never so clear if they love each other or if they despise each other. Both coming with such shaken up senses of self, they don’t want to carry an erotic fixation but end up doing so anyway, and it haunts them.
Indubitably can Lust, Caution still be viewed as a classic spy thriller made succulent through its gorgeous imagery. Lee has the untouchable mystique of war-era Asia down, and in some ways does the feature resemble Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), which similarly found a woman using her feminine charms to manipulate a powerful menace in the midst of supple visual electricity (though never for a second does the heroine of that film, played by Ingrid Bergman, appear captivated by her target). But while it’s handsome and emotionally involving and oftentimes gripping, unquestionably could a half-hour have been cut — it moves more slowly than a film as potentially taut as it should. Yet Lee’s lavish direction, well-matched by the smartly cast Tang and Chiu-Wei, seduces us. It transports us into its exotic setting, elevated by flagrant sexuality and by ever-present peril, so conclusively that we don’t have much time to ask questions. It’s only until after we’re finished that we have reservations. B+