Steamy, rough sex is the last thing you might expect from a slow-burning wartime drama directed by Ang lee, but when it arrives in Lust, Caution there is more to it than just arousing the attention of the audience. The carefully measured pace of the two-and-a-half hour film weighs an immense amount of depth and understanding on how the two leads come together, and the turmoil in its final 10 minutes is a harsh lesson in the laws of love.
Director Lee has a deft skill at drawing out the intense emotion from subtle love stories. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), the two leads only realise their love in the final moments as one dies in the other’s arms and the true love found in the Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain (2005) is restricted by the prejudices of society. For Lust, Caution love is used as an illusion, a dangerous tool designed to lure a man to his death.
The setting is Shanghai, 1942. As the Japanese occupation of the Chinese city during World War II continues, a theatre troupe take it upon themselves to attempt an assassination of top Japanese collaborator, Mr. Yee (Leung). Each student has a part to play, but central to its success will be the shy Wong Chia Chi (Wei Tang). She will be Mrs. Mak, aiming to gain Yee’s trust by befriending his wife and then drawing the man into an affair. Although initially successful, when their cover is blown they abandon the plan until years later when the plot is revived and Wong must play Mrs. Mak once more in an increasingly emotional tangle of between love and hate for the man she is luring to his death.
They make a sumptuous on-screen adulterous couple, especially in the now-notorious bedroom scenes.
The mind games at work between Wong and Yee, especially Wong’s subtle signs to Yee in front of his wife (Joan Chen), are skilfully rendered in the first part of the movie as Wong is simply playing with Yee. She does not care for the traitor, and almost enjoys enticing him into a web which will be his downfall. However, when she is reunited with him three years later, they are placed in close proximity to each other and an attraction develops for Wong, fuelled by Yee’s lust for her. Lee brings out the devastating affect denial has on Wong as the perfect prelude to the decisive moments for both of their futures. Tang brings the necessary innocence to Wong as a woman unaware of the situations she might find herself in while Leung is as effortlessly suave and sophisticated as ever. They make an sumptuous on-screen adulterous couple, especially in the now-notorious bedroom scenes.
Lust, Caution continues many of Lee’s oft-used themes of emotional denial and forbidden love, but this may be his most accomplished binding of them so far. Lee most likely has long-term producer and writer collaborator James Schamus to thank in large part for such an arresting film while Wong and Leung are faultless. Lee won’t be lucky enough to bag another Oscar — Lust, Caution has been overlooked — but this is a real treat demonstrating his talents.