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Lust, Caution (Widescreen Edition) (2007)

Action & Adventure and Art House & International movie directed by Ang Lee

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Difficult to Resist

  • Dec 22, 2009
Ang Lee may be the most interesting and gifted director alive today. He's done comedies of manners (Sense & Sensibility), comic book adaptations (Hulk), martial arts epics (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), trifling comedies (Taking Woodstock), and the quintessential gay romance of our times (Brokeback Mountain), amongst others. In 2007, he branched out even further, to the near-pornographically sexy Lust, Caution.

It must be said, right off the bat, that I'm a sucker for resistance stories about the amorality and difficult choices in occupied territory. World War II, with Germany and Japan trying to take over the world, is the best recent setting for such storytelling, although it's usually in Nazi-occupied territory like Paris. For Lust, Caution, Ang Lee chose Japanese occupied coastal China, which may arguably be even more fertile territory for storytelling.

20th-century China was a nation falling apart and constantly reinventing itself at the same time. The last imperial dynasty, the Qing, had been overthrown and replaced with a constitutional republic, which was threatened by warlord-based civil war as China had seen dozens of times in its between-dynasty history. As the republicans began to win the civil war, a new communist movement started gathering momentum, and the Japanese began to attack Chinese possessions in 1937, when the film begins. The film is set in Hong Kong and Shanghai, two major coastal cities which also served as two of the main entries for non-Chinese into China. Shanghai, in particular, was one of the cosmopolitan centers of East Asia, with enclaves of Japanese, American, English, German, French, and more inside the city. The political nature of the time and setting allowed a massive importation of "Western" ideas into China - republicanism and communism being two obvious examples.

The film begins with a flashback in which we meet the protagonist, Tang Wei, a student in Hong Kong. She and a friend are quickly recruited by a handsome man and a theater troupe. The politics of the main characters are quickly made apparent when the friend suggests they do a play of Henrik Ibsen's. Ibsen was a favorite around the world of those inclined towards republican and bourgeois ideals, especially in China. The young actor shoots this down as too bourgeois, and recommends a patriotic play to help China win the war, a tacky little piece of socialist realism that wins instant patriotic success. The little troupe doesn't want to just be actors, however, and begins to plot against traitorous collaborators.

Although the film doesn't expressly say it, they're entirely incompetent other than Tang Wei, who is also the least willing to join in, but does so to chase a crush. She succeeds in getting into Leung's social circle, and is ready to start an affair with him in order to facilitate the assassination, when things suddenly go wrong and she sees just how violent and amoral her friends can be.

When the film picks up again three years later in Shanghai, Tang Wei's friends have found her - and Tony Leung - and recruit her again to achieve the same goal. She goes along with them again, but only after seeing that her life is even more cast adrift than it had been - her family life has gone to hell, and she doesn't appear to have any new friends, and only escapes into movies.

Once the the resistance recruits Tang Wei back into the plot to kill Leung, she returns to a world of carefully tailored dresses and endless games of mah-jong, combined with stilted flirtations with Leung, a poised, careful gentleman of the collaborationist government.

Everything in the film at this point, like Tang Wei, is brilliantly conceived, but empty artifice. There's a plot, there are characters, and it's all gorgeous, but it not real. It's an act. And when Tony Leung and Tang Wei finally consummate their flirtation, both the characters and the film tear away the artifice in a shockingly intense, brutal sex scene.

As the affair continues, Tang's alienation from her life continues. Her resistance contacts prove to be shockingly incomprensive of her desperation, even when she breaks down and screams it at them. A romantic advance from her former crush proves awkward and rebuffed for being far, far too late - she is completely attached to her affair with Leung.

Tony Leung, meanwhile, is absolutely superb (as always) as Mr. Yee, the chief of police of the collaborationist government. His performance gives the impression that he is a perfect gentleman, stuck in a terrible situation outside of his control. Early in the film, it even seems like he might be likable enough that the young resistance troupe are entirely in the wrong to want to assassinate him. Slowly his character is revealed to be a despicable sadist, albeit a recognizably human one.

When he shows Tang Wei a moment of human kindness that everything unravels. When it occurs, it seems clear that she hasn't had a moment like that since the very start of the film, and her reaction is both entirely human and horrifically stupid. She is revealed as totally compromised, and her character is shown as starkly naked as the sex scenes for which the film is known.

Lust, Caution is not an easy movie to watch - no good resistance story should be - but it is a stunningly beautiful, deeply compelling film.

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February 16, 2010
Excellent observations on the characters! Your rating is the same as mine!
December 22, 2009
Great review, Rowan!  I've yet to see this Ang Lee film, but I'm a big fan of his, so I will eventually.  I didn't care too much for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon either (so many better Chinese martial arts films that most foreigners don't know about!), but Brokeback Mountain is a must.
December 22, 2009
great review! I rather liked this one and I thought Lee did a good job in directing the film with approaching it in two pieces of a whole. Loved your review title! Definitely this movie is just hard to resist; especially the NC-17 cut!
December 22, 2009
I unfortunately got the R-rated version from my local library.

It's funny, I seem to like Ang Lee more with his critically underacclaimed films. I loved this one and Hulk, but not so big on Crouching Tiger or The Ice Storm. I suppose Brokeback Mountain is next.
More Lust, Caution (2007) reviews
review by . September 04, 2008
"Lust, Caution" is a magnificent film by Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain (Widescreen Edition), Sense & Sensibility (Special Edition)). Bearing no resemblance to his previous films in themes used or in its direction, save for the amazing and beautiful scenes, this movie, as others by Lee, does what it intended to do: it explores characters as they are shaped by the idea, by the emotion and by the revolution love entails.     Wang Jiazhi is a young student …
review by . February 25, 2008
I enjoy watching Tony Leung in 2046, The Infernal Affairs Trilogy (Infernal Affairs 1 / Infernal Affairs 2 / Infernal Affairs 3) (Special Collector's Edition Box Set) and In the Mood for Love - Criterion Collectionso it was right for me to watch "Lust and Caution." This movie wasn't so hot in the theaters and targeted to a selective few. This movie starts with the Japanese occupying Shanghai during the second world war and resistance group member Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) is on a mission to assassinate …
review by . February 24, 2008
posted in Movie Hype
Ang Lee has the ability to transform simple stories about human relationships into epic films that somehow maintain the quality of intimacy and tenderness despite the grand sweep of his productions. In LUST, CAUTION ('SE, JIE') he has once again created a symphony of a film with a script by James Schamus based on the short story by Eileen Chang, assembled a cast superb actors who convey the story's multileveled messages on the historic backgrounds of World War II Shanghai and Hong Kong using the …
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Lust, Caution, Ang Lee's follow up toBrokeback Mountain, for which he won the Academy Award® for Best Director, continues his exploration of people with a passion for each other trapped in a world where their passion could be life-threatening, but in a very different context this time. Set in China during the Japanese occupation of early World War II, the underlying plot concerns the story of young Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei), an actress and member of a small group of student resistors planning to infiltrate the home of Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), a high-ranking collaborationist government official, in order to kill him for his role in the torture and executions of Chinese resistance fighters. Chi ingratiates herself with Yee's wife, the sophisticated and cultured Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen) under the guise of being the wife of a wealthy but unseen tycoon. Flashbacks tell the tale of how Chi came to be involved with the resistors: her acting ability is her most valuable asset, and her assignment is to act the role of Mr. Yee's lover, right down to the sex. The story of their love and the painful intimacy it involves for both of them is told through their sexual relationship, which starts out violently, drifts into S&M, and shifts with their feelings, moving from pain and fear to some sort of desperate connection. This is lust with a capital L; the film's sex scenes have become famous for their frankness and acrobatic portrayals (they took 12 days to film), but ...
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Director: Ang Lee
DVD Release Date: February 19, 2008
Runtime: 159 minutes
Studio: Universal Studios
First to Review
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