Like Steven Soderbergh, Ang Lee is exceedingly eager to show his range. In his 16-year career, the Taiwanese-born director has adapted characters from Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility) and comic books (Hulk) and explored his adopted country during the Civil War (Ride With the Devil) and the early ’70s (The Ice Storm), all while making occasional forays to Taiwan or China. Lust, Caution is another curveball, but its defining moment echoes his previous film, Brokeback Mountain: Two attractive people steal glances at each other until their passion suddenly detonates.
It wasn’t convincing then, and it’s not now, though there’s a crucial difference. In Brokeback Mountain, the moment when lust trumped caution arrived early, and the story’s emphasis was on maintaining love in a hostile culture. In Lust, Caution, it takes more than half the film’s 158-minute running time for the coolly corrupt Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) to have his none-too-gentle way with young, near-innocent Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei). Adapted from Eileen Chang’s short story by longtime Lee collaborators James Schamus and Wang Hui Ling, Lust, Caution postpones dramatic consummation as long as possible. The film is mostly about the preliminaries, for there is no future for Yee and Wong, save for one or both’s violent death.
The story opens in 1942 in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, the site of the film’s handful of gymnastic and sometimes brutal trysts. But it soon jumps back four years to British-controlled Hong Kong, where Wong is a college student who joins a theater group. Troupe leader Kuang (Wang Leehom) has bigger ambitions than staging patriotic revues: He wants one of the female members to seduce Yee, a notorious Chinese “running dog” of the Japanese, so as to kill him. Wong volunteers and assumes a fictional identity to befriend Yee’s wife (Joan Chen), who in her mah-jongg-playing way is just as fierce as her husband. The intrigue is on course when Yee is recalled to China. It then takes Wong three years to make her way from Hong Kong, now under Japanese control, to Shanghai and resume the plot. By the time the assassination is finally ordered, she’s no longer sure she wants her lover to die. This is a practical problem of no small consequence, but it’s also a conceptual one: Wong is an actress who’s forgotten she’s playing a role.
If Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was Lee’s King Hu homage, Lust, Caution is his Hou Hsiao-hsien move, emulating the Taiwanese master’s mastery of form and concern with history. Some have compared Lust, Caution to Wong Kar-wai’s period movies, especially In the Mood for Love, in which Leung plays another quiet man of deep and hidden ardor. Yet Lee’s film more closely resembles the work of the lesser-known Hou, including A City of Sadness and The Flowers of Shanghai (both of which also starred Leung). Where Wong’s style has an improvisational quality, Hou’s is more deliberate. He builds contrapuntal frameworks that clearly influenced Lust, Caution’s sense of structure.
Lee is a diligent student on Hou’s work, and he’s created a movie of great formal beauty, aided by Alexandre Desplat’s impressionist-lite score and the richly shadowed cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto (whose credits include Brokeback Mountain and Babel). Hou’s films, however, also convey emotion and character, both of which barely exist in the impeccably composed but blank Lust, Caution. Nothing that happens over the tale’s two-and-a-half hours amplifies the first impressions of the brooding Yee and the girlish Wong. With its long meditative passages punctuated by bursts of sex and violence—including a messy murder that recalls A City of Sadness—the film is more akin to a concerto than a narrative. Yeah, there’s screwing, but this may be the least passionate NC-17 flick ever.