2007 - China - 157 minutes
Director - Ang Lee
Writer - James Schamus from a story by Eileen Chang
My Rating - 5 of 5 Stars
Ang Lee certainly has a talent for directing unconventional love stories. First there was Brokeback Mountain and now we are gifted with his very next film, Lust, Caution.
The story takes place in China over a three year period, ending in 1942. At the beginning, the scene is in Japanese occupied Shanghai where we find Mrs. Mak playing mahjongg with three other socialite wives. These women seem to be far removed from the chaos of war and occupation that surrounds them. Mrs. Mak, a guest of Mr. and Mrs. Yee, leaves the game to go on an errand which is perceived by the viewer as something covert. During her errand, Mrs. Mak stops at a restaurant and makes an enigmatic phone call.
The scene shifts to Hong Kong three years earlier where we see Mrs. Mak as student, Wong Chia Chi. Wong and her girlfriend meet Kuang Yu Min who invites them to join his theater group. Kuang is a politically oriented young man who has written a nationalistic play dealing with the freedom of China for the grasp of outside influences. Wong, who joined the group somewhat as a lark, has flowered into the lead female character. There is definitely an attraction between Wong and Kuang, but he is such an intense young man devoted to his causes that he does nothing to foster the development of their romantic relationship.
Instead, Wong finds that the main agenda of the group is deadly - mainly the assassination of Mr. Yee who is a collaborator with the Japanese. During a break in classes, the group rents a house in a wealthy area of the city and begins a deception - actually a play in real life - in order to meet the hated Mr. Lee. Wong and another of the student actors pose as Mr. and Mrs. Mak in order to enter the social sphere of the Lee's and to, eventually, murder Mr. Lee.
However, murdering Mr. Lee is not that easy as he is not only heavily guarded but also an enigmatic, psychologically closed man. But, being a powerful man of powerful desires, he cannot resist the wiles of the enchantingly beautiful Wong.
Events occur that prevent the group from carrying out their plan. These events are so repugnant that Wong separates herself from the group.
The scene shifts to three years later in Shanghai where Kuang and his compatriots seek out Wong in order to resurrect the plan. By this time, conditions under the Japanese occupation have become so unbearable that Wong agrees.
A good part of the rest of the film concerns the relationship that develops between Mr. Lee and Wong posing as Mrs. Mak. This relationship leads to some of the most beautifully, erotic sex scenes I have ever seen in a film. They are brutally frank and extraordinary. A caution: this film is rated NC-17, and it earns it.
The excellent extras on the DVD give the Western audience insight to the three actors who play the major parts. Mr. Lee is played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai who is known for much lighter roles in China. He is superior as the extremely dark Mr. Lee who is a brutal, yet very human, man.
The two young people who play Wong and Kuang are first-time actors but you certainly wouldn't know it from their performances. Wei Tang as the beautiful Wong is hypnotic. You can't keep your eyes off of her. Kuang is played by Lee-Hom Wang who is actually a rock star in China. He is perfect as a young man filled with ideals and emotions.
One of the reviews of this film that I read said that no one under thirty could possibly understand the complex emotional tie that develops between Mr. Lee and Wong. That may be very true for there are few traditional - especially in younger Western eyes - bonds that so cement the two in a passion destined for destruction.
As far as I'm concerned, Lust, Caution is a must-see film.
February 25, 2008