Lust, Caution (18)

Sex and lies in Old Shanghai: For all its subtleties, Ang Lee's period drama with its variant on the Mata Hari spy scenario cannot help but exploit clichd Western fantasies about Asian sexuality
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Think of Taiwanese director Ang Lee, then think of the words Lust, Caution, and it'll certainly be "caution" that springs to mind first. Lee's films tend to favour subtlety and discretion. His Sense and Sensibility stood out from the pack of Austen adaptations as the one most genuinely engaged with emotional repression, while Brokeback Mountain was the first film in ages about a gay relationship that was truly fascinated with the claustrophobia of the closet.

The sex in Lee's Chinese period drama Lust, Caution is both intense and explicit, but that's not what makes the greatest impression. At heart, Lust, Caution is an unexpected companion piece to Brokeback Mountain it's another love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name story, in a way and it's the discreet gestures that count most. Bondage, blow jobs, sweaty bedroom violence all figure, but for pure eroticism, the most telling moment comes when the heroine dabs a spot of perfume on her wrist: somehow this little fetishistic detail, occurring at a key dramatic moment, has a sexual resonance that outdoes the orgiastic intensity of the crumpled sheets.

Set in Shanghai and Hong Kong in the late 1930s and early 40s, Lust, Caution follows the wartime career of an intrepid ingnue heroine: confident newcomer Tang Wei plays Wong Chia Chi, a student who joins a drama troupe intent on promoting patriotic Chinese ideals in defiance of the Japanese invaders. Before long, the group decides to move from drama to real action and to assassinate Mr Yee (Tony Leung), a collaborationist official visiting Hong Kong. They slip into disguise, setting themselves up as a bourgeois household; as "Mrs Mak", Wong Chia Chi joins the mah-jong circle of Yee's wife (Joan Chen), and attempts to become his mistress. To this end, the virginal student trains doggedly, a cell member awkwardly helping her bone up on sex. "I think you're getting the hang of it," he tells her approvingly, in one of the film's rare flashes of humour.

When Wong gets together with her target, things begin to sizzle gently. She proves a natural flirt at a restaurant table, and we instantly wonder whether she really has the hots for saturnine smoothie Yee, or whether she's simply the same dazzling actress we saw moving theatre audiences to tears with her on-stage patriotic fervour. But the plan is aborted, the cell scattering after a clumsily brutal confrontation: a virtuoso extended sequence that's the best thing in the film. In Shanghai three years later, Wong is recalled to action, and throws herself body and soul into a renewed assault on Yee, embarking on a physically intense and seemingly emotionally consuming affair with him.

The film is based on a story by popular Chinese writer Eileen Chang, and it's hard to know what specific resonances Lee's adaptation will have for Asian audiences: by all accounts, the mah-jong leitmotif provides a crucial underscoring function bound to be lost on Western viewers. Yet Lust, Caution can't help seeming to exploit certain clichd Western fantasies of Asian sexuality, with its variant on the Mata Hari scenario. Lee certainly generates a powerful erotic charge from casting the delicately gorgeous Tang Wei, who looks dowdily innocent as a student, but blossoms into an alluring vamp under a variety of rakish slouch hats, with a lipsticked rosebud pout.

There's a potent sexual fantasy in the period setting itself: for modern audiences, there's invariably a sense of something racily improper about 1940s people, buttoned up in social decorum, actually taking off their clothes. Yet there's also an unavoidable streak of spy-story banality to the scenario: the noble guerrilla girl tangling with a callous enemy and melting in his arms. The affair begins, essentially, with a rape and it soon becomes clear that Wong likes it, or patriotically feigns to like it, rough. ("I hate you," she hisses; "I believe you," he purrs.) What makes the affair plausible is the casting of Tony Leung, Asian cinema's most carnal heart-throb, memorable as a jaded Lothario in Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love: a dapper, soulful lounge lizard, his face takes on a heavy, predatory quality in close-up, mixing Bogart's weather-beaten tenderness with the coarse glamour of Clark Gable.

The original short story is apparently a spare 28 pages, but Lee and screenwriters Wang Hui Ling and James Schamus have expanded it to a sometimes laborious 158 minutes. This is partly because the film's realism leaves no stone unturned. Shanghai and Hong Kong are recreated scrupulously: the film describes everything, fills in details rather than sketching in backgrounds. Yet it constantly alludes, sometimes overtly, to period Hollywood cinema notably, to Hitchcock's 1940s dramas of sexual deceit and caution and you can't help being struck by the difference in economy between those films and Lee's somewhat pedantic will to re-create an entire world before our eyes. Rodrigo Prieto's photography contrives to be at once lavish and austere, and the overall delicacy and severity and the sense that Lee is scrupulously avoiding false glamour provide an undeniable cachet of integrity. Yet all this somehow prevents the drama from really coming alive.

The historical realism so overwhelms the film that ultimately you're not sure what interests Ang Lee most: the evocation of this period in modern Chinese history, the central relationship itself, or more generally the moral complexity of espionage, the tensions between action and individual feeling. In fact, there's already a peerless spy drama about sexual compromise and the political abuse of sexuality in wartime, and in its complexity, it goes way beyond this film: in fact, it's one of Lee's prime models, Hitchcock's 1946 film Notorious.

Last year's Golden Lion award winner in Venice, Lust, Caution is subtle, adult and intelligent, and makes no concession to sensation, drawing us in with a complex, inventive flashback structure. It's a totally admirable film yet it's hard to feel more than admiration. Sexually upfront it may be, but ultimately Lust, Caution only hovers at the bedroom door, its somewhat scholarly tact pulling it back from true emotional or psychological revelation.