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

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

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.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us