Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution is like a bespoke-suited City shark. Everything is manicured and polished.
Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution is like a bespoke-suited City shark. Everything is manicured and polished – James Schamus’ screenplay is a model of sophistication; the performances of Tony Leung and newcomer Tang Wei are impassioned and intelligent; while production designer Lai Pan has created a compelling vision of occupied China – but despite all that, deep down you just don’t trust it.
Shanghai, 1942. The Japanese are working with a collaborationist government in occupied China. An underground resistance has mobilised, and in its sights is the commander of the secret police, Mr Yee (Leung). Yee lives in a closely guarded compound with round-the-clock protection, but he has one weakness, a woman with whom he fell in love four years before in Hong Kong. That woman is Wong Chia Chi (Wei), now a fully-fledged member of the resistance tasked with bringing Lee into the open by any means necessary.
Cutting between occupied Shanghai and pre-war Hong Kong, between the duel identities of Wong Chia Chi, between youth and experience, between hope and futility, between violence and love, Ang Lee constructs a crystalline tale of polished brilliance.
Like the diamond that Yee fashions for his lover, it’s a film with a multi-faceted surface. It is, in its own way, a more powerful rendering of our current troubles than any liberal hand-wringer, asking tough questions about occupation, violence and freedom. It is also a provocative sexual thriller: a grown up Black Book, which replaces that film’s smutty good fun with a high-mindedness that is, nevertheless, far from cautious about Yee and Wong’s sex life.
By any measurable standard, Ang Lee has produced another epic. And yet something about Lust, Caution sticks in the throat. It oozes good taste, the kind that convinces people they’re watching quality world cinema when its Hollywood sugarcoating is designed to keep them from ever experiencing the real thing.
It’s all intellect and no emotion, and is just so damn organised that it has the atmosphere of an airtight bag – hermetically sealed, still and stale. It lacks the rough edges that give a picture personality, and for all its bedroom heat, it’s a film that’s in dire need of a little more warmth.
You could make a convincing argument that Ang Lee is the best director in the world.
Full marks for artistic merit, but not for emotional content.
At the very least it will force you to think long and hard about why a film with so few visible flaws isn’t a much better experience.