Saturday, October 06, 2007

­Lust, Caution

I wonder how much I would have liked Lust, Caution if it had gotten the Kill Bill treatment - split its two halves into two separate films, which could have their own different feels. It's a strange case - it's a long movie, but it also feels kind of generic, like it could use fleshing out. Maybe if each half were its own film, they'd each feel more complete.

Of course, making a short story into a double-feature-length feature sort of sounds like overkill. That's certainly what it felt like it needed to me, though.

Lust, Caution (Se, jie)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 October 2007 at AMC Harvard Square #1 (preview)

Lust, Caution is almost long enough to contain its own sequel, although more in the literary mode where an author revisits characters in a way that seems almost disconnected from the initial work. Ang Lee's latest doesn't quite split neatly in half like that, but it nearly does, and I suspect many will prefer one section to the other, though they do combine into a unified whole.

The bulk of the first section takes place in 1938 Hong Kong, and focuses on a college drama club. Many of them have arrived in the city as exiles from Japanese-occupied Manchuria, and their leader, Kuang Yu-min (Wang Lee-hom) suggests they put on a show that does more for the war effort than the patriotic play they just staged. He knows a guy, Tsao (Chin Kar-lok), who works for Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), a notable figure in the collaborationist government. Yee is very cautious, but maybe they can find a way to get close enough to assassinate him. So Auyang Ling-wen (Johnson Yuen) becomes Mr. Mak, working for his family's import-export business, and freshman Wong Chia-chi (Tang Wei) becomes Mak Tai Tai, who befriends Yee Tai Tai (Joan Chen) and attracts the attention of Mr. Yee. Things don't go according to plan, of course, but three years later in Shanghai, Wong once again meets up with Kuang; he's now with the organized resistance and believes Mak Tai Tai could come in handy once again.

It's the second half of Lust, Caution that has gotten the most note, but the first may actually be more interesting. It's not quite a caper movie - the mission is too serious for that - but it's something we don't see that often: Resistance fighters starting from scratch, rather than being led by an ex-soldier or recruited and run by some canny spy master. There's the potential for screw-ups and everybody being in over their heads, and the private dramas of college students (a low-key love traingle going on between Wong, Kuang, and the other girl in the group). There's also some black, black comedy to be wrung from certain elements - dealing with the fact that Yee will notice if the supposedly-married woman seducing him is a virgin, or how hard it can really be to actually kill someone. There may also have been some more straightforward comedy - the Chinese-speaking audience around me was laughing hard at times, but I don't know whether that was from nuances a person reading subtitles misses or bad accents/dialect.

The second half is a more familiar espionage thriller, though more explicit than most: Chia-chi goes undercover, has to have sex with her target in order for the deception to work, and by the time the resistance is ready to strike, the cover seems like her real life and the good guys seem pretty damn callous. It's a solid story that has stood the test of time in its many incarnations, but Lee and his writers don't give it enough unique embellishments. The world also shrinks to little more than Wong and Yee; Yee Tai Tai, Kuang, and resistance leader Old Wu (Chung Hua Tou) are there, but are practically stage dressing.

So what sets Lust, Caution apart is the sex, and Ang Lee does make effective use of it, at least at first: Not many members of the audience are going to have the "hey, you got to sleep with Tony Leung out of the deal, so it wasn't all bad" reaction. They're tough scenes to watch, almost as much as the violence, or scenes of people dying in the streets because there's no food. Wong is paying a heavy price to try to liberate her country, and actually watching her be stripped of her dignity is much more effective than simply being told about it. It's a well Lee and company maybe go to a little too often; by the end, the shock effect has worn off a bit, the movie's gone on for a while and I started to wonder if Wong ever did anything else.

That doesn't take away from Wei Tang's performance - as far as I can tell, it's her feature debut, and she carries the film on her back without making too much of a show of it. She makes us impressed with her character's talent and initial enthusiasm, and shows us how the situation wears on Wong even though the character is trying to put on a placid front. Tony Leung is more experienced, of course, and does a great job of being extremely restrained until Yee's tension explodes when he and Wong are alone.

Lust, Caution is slick enough that it manages to keep the audience interested even when it's started to drag a bit. It's a pretty good movie, although I wonder if it could have been a better one if the filmmakers had focused on one half or the other.

Also at eFilmCritic

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