Lust, Caution is a great festival film; it's lush and long and loaded. It's also a bad festival film; I want to go back to it and think about it more, as if it were too delicate or intricate to be understood with the snap judgments and quick appraisals a festival can make you turn to at first resort. Like director Ang Lee's prior film, Brokeback Mountain, Lust, Caution takes a brisk, brief short story (Se, Jei by Eileen Chang) and makes it fill the screen, with plenty of room for visual rapture and strong performances -- and some space for doubts and questions to seep in, with a distant whisper of controversy about sex (for the R-rated Brokeback, over gay themes and characters; for the NC-17-rated Lust, over explicit straight sex) at the edge of hearing.
In wartime Shanghai, Mrs. Mak (Tang Wei) enters a parlor and travels to another world. She plays Mah-Jong with idle, wealthy women (who live in constant danger, in the middle of squalor) and slowly, carefully, carries out the steps in a plan to meet her lover, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) -- husband to Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen), collaborator in service to the occupying Japanese, torturer. But Mrs. Mak's actions don't speak in the warm close whispers of a lover, but rather in the brittle conspiratorial tones of a criminal. ...
Because she is not Mrs. Mak; she is Wong Chia Chi, and she has been on a four-year journey to meet with Mr. Yee and be his lover. Until some later point, when he can be killed. Lust, Caution revolves around a plot, like a thriller, and we try to read it like that; but it also revolves around character and nature, like a drama, and we see it through that perspective. The movie -- and the audience -- jumps from intimate drama to glossy thrills.
And the jolt of that jump can jar. Lust, Caution is nothing more -- and nothing less -- than Notorious, Hitchcock's 1946 classic about a woman (Ingrid Bergman) sent undercover by a man she may love (Cary Grant) to be a lover to a monster (Claude Rains) . (Those of you under 40 may instead have to think of Mission: Impossible II.) Here, Wei's handsome handler is Wang Leehom, who puts her on the trail of Leung. Leehom -- a popstar in his first role -- fades into the film, though; we see little of his character. Of Yee, we know even less; every part of the film seems to unfold for us through Wei's eyes.
Wei is also making her film debut here, but her character is, too, playing a dangerous masquerade born from the movies. Wong Chia Chia goes from activism to art to conspiracy -- and from innocence to corruption to something like repentance. Wei makes us feel that arc in Wong Chia Chi's life during wartime; or, rather, she and Lee and screenwriters Wang Hui Ling and James Schamus make us feel it. And that journey has glamour and horror in it. When 'Mrs. Mak' makes her move, every motion is from the '40s Hollywood playbook; Mr. Yee responds with casual brutality she -- and we -- do not expect.
The sex in Lust, Caution is complicated -- every ecstatic cry is more than matched by a choked sob. More bluntly, the NC-17 rating that comes with it takes Lust, Caution's box-office -- already, as a subtitled period piece, dim even in light of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's 128-million domestic total -- and completely extinguishes them. But Lee offers that he wasn't aware of that, and you're inclined to believe him: This is the film he wanted to make. Lust, Caution is a film worth seeing again, a film worth having your own opinion about, a challenging piece of cinema that also thrills, a complicated bold work that's bigger than its problems.
(For Cinematical's interview with director Ang Lee at Toronto, click here.)