Screenwriter: Wang Hui Ling, James Schamus
Starring: Tony Leung, Tang Wei, Joan Chen, Wang Leehom
Running time: 158 mins
As he did with Brokeback Mountain before it, Ang Lee has taken a short story and transformed it into a finely-crafted epic movie which is sure to stay in the minds of audiences long after seeing it.
Based on acclaimed Chinese writer Eileen Chang's Se, Jei, the film begins in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in 1942. When a group of friends at her student theatre group devise to assassinate Japanese collaborator Mr Yee (Leung), competent young actress Wong Chia Chi (Tang) is assigned to ingratiate herself with their quarry's household. However, as her mission draws on into years from an amateurish attempt to part of an organised resistance, and her relationship with Yee becomes more complex, we are left wondering where her allegiance will ultimately lie. Lee's teasing introduction, in which Wong's phone call mobilises a group of armed men before entering into flashback, keeps us guessing about the outcome throughout, as we expect her cover to be rumbled at any point.
Lust, Caution marks the feature film debut of Tang Wei, and she's been given an especially meaty part with which to make a first impression. She carries the movie on her shoulders in the role of Wong, a role which by its nature requires her to convince both the audience and the other characters with a variety of personas, emotions and motives. Also having to get to grips with multiple dialects, she is successful in drawing us in Wong's story.
Tang's complex chemistry with Leung is crucial to enrapture the audience in their strange and violent affair of obsessive lust. He takes Yee, a cruel and ultimately unlikable character, and allows us to feel awkwardly sympathetic as well as chilled by him.
Much fuss has been made of the explicit sex scenes featured in the movie. These not infrequent scenes are certainly gratuitous, not least from a perspective of Chinese cinema, but it is clear even during the first of these scenes that their inclusion is an important part of the narrative and essential for an understanding of Wong and Yee's relationship. Claims of this giving the film any pornographic aspect are totally inaccurate – the choreography is cold and clinical rather than arousing.
Ang Lee again demonstrates his keen aesthetic eye, both in terms of vivid scenery and lush costumes, previously evident in Sense and Sensibility and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He builds up atmosphere and authenticity as he switches from scenes of dark Shanghai streets filled with oppressed citizens to officers' wives playing Mah Jong and speaking of their favourite tailors in luxury. The tense surroundings and anxiety of the Japanese occupation serves as a mirror to Wong's own tense situation.
An adaptation of a short story of over two and a half hours in length, Lust, Caution may have risked losing some of its audience along the way. However, although the plot develops slowly, the tension is wound up so masterfully that those who invest themselves in this movie will be wondering where the time went.