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.

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen