‘Perverse love story’
Ang Lee’s latest foray into literary adaptation is not quite like anything else he’s done before. Based on a short story by Eileen Chang, it’s longer and certainly more sinister than his version of Pride and Prejudice, and—with that NC-17 rating—it’s much more sexually explicit and erotically flamboyant than Brokeback Mountain.
With a period setting (World War II in China, during the Japanese occupation) and a plot involving conspiracy, seduction, assassination and underground resistance, Lust, Caution sounds like a political thriller in the spy-saga mode. But despite some elaborately detailed historical background, it still boils down—perhaps too slowly—to a two-person drama, a perverse love story with some surprising long-range fall-out.
With Hong Kong heartthrob Tony Leung in one of the two lead roles, the film also echoes such Wong Kar-Wai pictures as In the Mood for Love, but the seduction-and-assassination plot is more along the lines of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Notorious (1946), a connection the cineaste Lee seems to acknowledge via separate glimpses of that film’s stars, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. As such, Lust, Caution is rich in cinematic textures, but nowhere near any full-blown Hitchcockian payoffs, with or without that “transgressive” psychology.
The sexual fireworks and sporadic brutality inevitably prove somewhat misleading for an extended tale in which deflected emotion and subtly convoluted psychology ultimately matter most. And it doesn’t help that Tang seems too much the featherweight in the perhaps impossible role of the drama student who must make herself into a femme fatale as part of a dissident scheme to set-up a collaborationist intelligence officer (Leung) for assassination.
Leung, nevertheless, is quite good—moody, both sleek and hardened, smoldering with perverse, guilty defiance—and the one performer in the production who seems capable of fully bearing the paradoxes of the story’s characterizations. Rodrigo Prieto’s suavely evocative cinematography and Alexandre Desplat’s lush, somber score add substantially to film’s various offbeat pleasures.