Ang Lee is one of the few directors who can tackle virtually any genre, and with a few exceptions (2003’s The Hulk leaps to mind) come up with something marvellous if not exceptional (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000, Brokeback Mountain, 2005).
Lust, Caution is a slow-burning thriller set in WWII Japanese-occupied Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Wong Chia Chi (27 year-old Wei Tang in her film debut) is university freshman, abandoned by her father, and living with relatives. She has no sense of belonging – anywhere or to anyone. She joins a drama group who long to be part of the Chinese resistance and discovers an unknown talent..
When the troup’s plan grows grander, she agrees to take on the role of a lifetime – seducing Mr Yee (Tony Leung), a corrupt government minister responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Chinese resisters. She will lure him away from his heavily armed security, so he can be assassinated.
This means Chia Chi must learn to dress, speak and also perform sexually – the way Yee would expect, not as a virginal university student. Of all the indignities she has to bear, I found this ‘training’ the most painful.
Eventually she succeeds in her mission to seduce Yee, but any sense of control is immediately shattered. Though she never wavers from the purpose of her mission, her encounters with the cruel and emotionless Mr Yee are the only time Chia Chi truly feels truly alive. She is longing for him as much as she longs to see him dead.
It is simply impossible to do justice to this film in a few hundred words. There is the complexity of Chinese politics in a time of occupation. Chia Chi’s personal story. And then there is the issue of the thousands of women who’ve performed this wartime ‘service’ for their countries who, if considered at all, are more likely to be called whores than heroes.
At 2 hours and 39 minutes, Lust, Caution is long and the first half hour lingers over the manners and habits of the moneyed class. Joan Chen has a small but interesting role as Yee’s wife, caught up in gossip, shopping and mah jhong.
Yet once the story begins to move it is riveting. The breathtakingly frank sex scenes (for which Tang was blackballed by the Beijing film industry) are unforgettable – and are the one caveat I offer before recommending this film. If you are even moderately easily offended, the sex scenes will likely take you out of your comfort zone – as much as they do Tang’s character, which is why they are entirely appropriate.