Lust, Caution (18)
A love affair in search of a fitting climax
Friday 04 January 2008
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.
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