November 15, 2007

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Lust, Caution (NC-17)
Director Ang Lee offers up World War II intrigue, intense emotions, lush settings and boobies in Lust, Caution, Lee’s nearly three-hour foreign-language follow-up to Brokeback Mountain.

With graphic sex scenes! Does Lee know how to build on success or what? Actually, it takes a string of movies like The Ice Storm, Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain to be able to have the clout to even get something this un-commercial a fairly wide release.

Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) is a young woman who has been left by her father (in England working) and mother (dead) alone in the tumultuous China of the late 1930s. She is attending school in Hong Kong while other parts of the country fall to Japanese invasion. A quiet girl, Wong Chia Chi falls in with a group of students who decide to put on a patriotic play. Drunk on the crowd’s cheers during a performance, the students decide to put their dramatic skills to more direct use for their country and pose as a wealthy merchant family to get close to a man who is collaborating with the Japanese. Wong Chia Chi agrees to go along with it in part because of her feelings for Kuang Yu Min (Wang Leehom), the group’s leader. Wong Chia Chi becomes Mak Tai Tai (Mrs. Mak, wife of a wealthy man). Particularly young-looking as her student self, Wong Chia Chi makes Mak Tai Tai a sexy, sophisticated married lady, dressing in a perfect blend of Chinese and Western glamour. Soon, the group’s plan becomes to use Mak Tai Tai as bait for Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), the collaborator. He very nearly falls for the trap, but then the tides of war push him away.

Years later, Wong Chia Chi is trying to make it in occupied Shanghai, attending the Japanese-controlled schools and occasionally going to the movies. Once again, she meets Kuang Yu Min and he tells her that Mr. Yee, now a bigwig in the Japanese security forces, is in town. Wong Chia Chi doesn’t seem to need that much convincing to curl her hair, paint her face and become Mak Tai Tai again. But is she eager to seduce Mr. Yee to speed his assassination or because she actually desires him?

It’s hard to talk about this movie and its strange tone — languorous, mannered, beautifully constructed period settings that clash with surprising scenes of violence, sex and often both at once — without giving away key plot points. I suppose the best way to explain the movie is to say that it’s similar to director Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, a sudsy noir-ish movie about a Jewish woman who seeks to avenge the death of her family in the Netherlands in World War II by seducing the local head of the Gestapo for the resistance. Except, where that movie is fairly straightforward with its occasionally silly dramatics and its scenes of sedition with romance, Lust, Caution starts out slow and turns weird. Are you watching a well-bred spy story? Or are you watching some strange study of human psychology, specifically of desire over reason?

So, then, let’s talk about all the attention-grabbing nudity. Lust, Caution’s NC-17 material is graphic; there are a few times when you’re not sure exactly how much “acting” is going on, if you get my drift (though, as I heard another film critic point out recently, the actors stay in character too well to be, uhm, concentrating on other things, so, as life-like as the scenes are, they are most likely still “scenes”). And this isn’t the pretty movie sex, where there’s soft music, hazy lights and everybody looks like they’re two Percocets into a very good evening. This sex is full of danger and violence and the uneasy sense that Mak Tai Tai isn’t just serving her country. The sex is Mak and Yee at their least artificial. As we learn more about Yee, we learn that he is, essentially, like the head of the local Gestapo and he acts accordingly. Mak Tai Tai might be the only connection he has left to the part of him that isn’t a professional sadist.

Everything about the movie looks different after you see the end of the film. Circumstances actually prevented me from seeing this movie’s final three scenes (maybe 10 minutes of the movie, after we get the big climax) the first time I saw it. I finally went back to see the ending about two weeks later. Rewatching parts of the movie before the climax, the scenes felt different and had more depth after I knew what was going to happen than before.

It’s unlikely that anyone will ever watch Lust, Caution twice, however — even I didn’t sit through the whole movie the second time. It is overly long and parts of it feel too slow. But it is a showcase for two strong performances — Leung says very little throughout the movie but gives us all of his pain in the lines on his face, and Tang Wei is able to portray naiveté and weariness at the same time. Even if you only go to see what all the NC-17 fuss is about, Lust, Caution is a movie worth seeing. B

Rated NC-17 for some explicit sexuality. Directed by Ang Lee and written by James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang from a novella by Eileen Chang, Lust, Caution is two hours and 37 minutes long and is distributed by Focus Features. The movie is currently playing in the Boston area and is tentatively scheduled to come to Wilton Town Hall Theatre and Red River Theatres in the coming weeks.