Revenge, unlikely love, steamy sex scenes and sociopolitical intrigue commingle to mostly engaging effect in wartime Shanghai.
Lust, Caution is a wartime story of espionage and intrigue, but to call it a thriller would be misleading. The constraints of modern moviegoers’ attention spans don’t concern director Ang Lee, as anyone who either loved or hated 2003’s Hulk can attest. Similarly, though the movie is rated a libidinous NC-17 (and deservedly so), neither does it flaunt its eroticism for cathartic release. No, instead, Lust, Caution is a lushly photographed, exacting, slightly overlong but still mostly involving drama about the clash of disparate forces and ethics — beauty and cruelty, desire and fidelity, personal awakening and patriotic duty.
Based on Eileen Chang’s short story of the same name, and adapted for the screen by James Schamus and Wang Hui Ling, the film unfolds in Shanghai, and spans four or five years during the World War II Japanese occupation of the city. As a freshman at university left behind by her father, unassuming Wong Chia Chi (newcomer Tang Wei) meets fellow student Kuang Yu Min (Wang Leehom), who’s drummed up a drama society to shore up patriotism and feed the burgeoning student resistance movement. As the theater troupe’s new leading lady, Wong realizes that she has found her calling. Shedding her shyness, she finds liberation in the ability to move and inspire audiences.
Quickly, though, Kuang and his company’s quaint, bourgeois rebellion — a symbolically-infused production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House — gives way to a much more radical plot: to assassinate a top Japanese collaborator, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), regarded as a traitor. To do so, they slowly infiltrate his social circle. Each student has a part to play, with no character more important than Wong, who poses as Mrs. Mak — the wife of an importer/exporter and a woman of sophistication and means who gains Yee’s trust by befriending his wife (Joan Chen), smilingly suffering through endless games of mahjong, rife with symbolic needling and social maneuvering.
The scenario proceeds as scripted, until an unexpectedly fatal twist collapses the plot. Several years later, with still no end in sight for the occupation, Wong reunites with Kuang, now part of a more organized resistance. Returning to the role of Mrs. Mak in a revival of the plot to kill the paranoid Yee — who, as head of the collaborationist secret service, has become an even more key part of the puppet government — Wong finishes her seduction. The pair strikes up an affair. Acting out pent-up aggressions and bleeding himself of the stress of his job, Yee proves himself a sadistic lover. Yet Wong finds herself abandoned by the certainty of her youth, developing true if unlikely feelings for Yee.
Lust, Caution summons forth the intrigue and quiet, opposition strategy of behind-enemy-lines dramas like Charlotte Gray, and also (just a bit) the personal duplicity and scheming on display in something like Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German, which also (figuratively and literally) dealt in shades of occupied grey. If, as the saying goes, one ultimately becomes the things that they do, war has a way of forcing interesting choices upon even a civilian populace, and thus perverting individual will in not entirely easily explainable ways.
Maybe the most interesting film that Lust, Caution tangentially reminded me of, though, is actually Mike Newell’s superlative Donnie Brasco, starring Johnny Depp as an undercover FBI agent who infiltrates the Mafia and Al Pacino as the middle-management goomba who vouches for him. Like that movie, Lust, Caution is about the slippery slope of identity, and how one can lose oneself in the extreme pursuit of even-handedness or justice. The differences, of course, have to do with original naivety (Wong is a student, not a law enforcement officer), but also men and women, and the tangled influence of desire. Whereas Depp’s character develops an affinity for Pacino, that affection is not necessarily intrinsically tied to the confusion and isolation he feels around those in his “real” life.
Lust, Caution plays the love card, but given that it’s a love born out of extreme cruelty and maltreatment (when at one point Wong’s handlers praise the professionality of her work but then dawdle about taking definitive action, she launches into a monologue of graphic detail, much to the blanched horror of her the operation’s manager), one can never be sure how sincere this change of heart is, versus the possibility of merely “Stockholm Syndrome” identification. Clearly, Lee believes that Wong’s journey is one of an awakening of sorts, but while Wei gives a sublime performance of range and deftly modulated indecision, Lust, Caution never fully convinced me of love’s bloom, just that war alters everything, at home as well on far-flung battlefields.
The movie as a whole could likely benefit from a collapsing of its first half; as is, the interruption of the initial assassination plot feels so jarring and frustrating because of its significant lead-in. Paradoxically, a bit more fleshing out of the abuses suffered by the Chinese at the hands of their Japanese occupiers would have better rooted some of the film’s personal stories. Still, if one submits to its rhythms rather than rage against them, Lust, Caution’s acting and just-so overall design prove a more than inviting combination for the arthouse set. (Focus Features, NC-17, 158 minutes, expands October 12)