Lust, Caution (18)

2.00

A love affair in search of a fitting climax

Now here's something to ponder. After a sequence of movies as remarkable for their genre-hopping versatility as for their virtuosity costume drama (Sense and Sensibility), Civil War epic (Ride With the Devil), blockbuster (Hulk), martial art-house (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), gay romance (Brokeback Mountain) has Ang Lee finally gone and made a porn movie? Advance reports suggested as much, and the "18" certificate warns that Lust, Caution will contain something a little racier than one would expect from an Academy Award-winning director.

Its opening scene does involve a foursome, though I should add that the four women in question are playing mahjong. It's rather a brilliant sequence: a silkily edited symphony of clacking tiles and furtive glances. It sets the mood of a story that will investigate a different and deadly form of games-playing, hedged around with more suspicious looks, second-guesses and sly bluffs. There is caution to spare in these early scenes; for the lust we have to wait a while longer.

On one level, Lust, Caution is a story about war. We are in Hong Kong, 1938, and a group of agitprop drama students decide to take a stand against the Japanese occupation: they will assassinate a high-profile Chinese official, Mr Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), who is collaborating with the enemy. Yee operates under heavy security, so Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) is deputed to play the siren that will lure him into the open. Masquerading as a society lady, she insinuates herself into the company of Yee's wife (Joan Chen) and slowly works her spell upon the husband.

There is a bleak kind of comedy in the contrast between the students' revolutionary fervour and their practical naivety, evidenced in the awkward dress or rather, undress rehearsals they stage in a rented house. Wong is a virgin, so has to "practise" her bedroom technique with a co-conspirator. "You're getting much better at this," he tells her after a few sessions.

Lee and his screenwriters, James Schamus and Wang Hui Ling, are adapting from a short story by the Chinese author Eileen Chang. (It's in Mandarin, with subtitles.) The director admires the way Chang describes the euphoria that a young actress feels after coming off stage, and his own depiction of this Wong dining with friends, then riding on the upper deck of a late-night tram has a certain enchantment. That's because Lee is so good with silences: think back to Brokeback Mountain, also adapted from a short story, and the lyrical flow of its first 45 minutes, based on the observation of landscape and composition. Similarly, as the action of Lust, Caution switches to 1942 Shanghai, it's the way the camera glides around the mahogany interiors that has a deeper resonance than any of the dialogue.

It is when Lee, daringly, tries to extend the non-verbal drama into sex that the movie takes a violent lurch. The undercover agent eventually does get under the covers, though Wong's couplings with Yee seem to have more in common with Sumo wrestling than anything resembling erotic pleasure. Yee, a fastidious blank socially, proves quite the brute in the bedroom, and half the surprise is that Tony Leung, a model of tact in Wong Kar-Wai's In The Mood For Love, should be that brute. Lee, having successfully tested mainstream audiences with gay cowboys "stemming the rose", has here broadened his field of fire, but the scenes of sexual maltreatment however emblematic of colonial exploitation are so excessive as to more or less throw us out of the movie. A movie which, in any case, is now suffering some major credibility issues.

First, the idea that the student resistance would once again seek help from Wong in Shanghai after she failed them in Hong Kong is dubious. Second, that Yee, a man of punctilious thoroughness, would not have rumbled his lover as a spy. On this relationship the whole tension hangs, and more than once we glimpse through its tangle of manipulative cruelty the ghost of Hitchcock's Notorious. This, too, enacts a kind of love triangle, though Wong's admirer Kuang (Wang Lee-Hom) is too peripheral a figure to make its third side a going concern. So the only question left is whether Wong will fall for her lover-oppressor; the leisure with which the film answers it there's even a pause for a musical sequence will perhaps test even those who have stayed with its odd, meandering rhythm.

And what a shocking disappointment it proves to be. The climactic set-piece at a jeweller's has been brewing since the prologue however many minutes (hours?) before, and offers the prospect of a showdown between opponents who've been shadow-boxing from the start. Instead, it's all over in 30 seconds flat. Lee pulls the rug from under us, it's true, but only because his denouement is so outlandish. Either something has been lost in the story's translation or its view of women as double agents is desperately cynical. Who knew that a nice girl's head could be so turned by rough sex and a diamond the size of a quail's egg? I've heard of the madness of love, but this is pushing it.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried