In World War II era Shanghai, Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) has been left behind by her father, who has escaped to England. At university, she meets Kuang Yu Min (Wang Leehom) who has started a drama society to shore up patriotism in the face of the Japanese occupation. As the troupe's new leading lady, Wong has found her calling. Kuang convenes a group of students to carry out a radical and ambitious plan to assassinate a senior Chinese collaborator with the Japanese, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung). Wong will take the role of her life as Mrs. Mak, to gain Yee's trust by befriending his wife (Joan Chen) and then draw the man into an affair so she can pinpoint his movements for the planned assassination.
Review by Louise Keller:
Like the many facets of a diamond, the human heart can find its lustre in dark places. Ang Lee's tortuous film about love and betrayal takes passion through highs and lows as it leads us through its tense and riveting journey. The passion of patriotism swirls into a web of deceit where sex and love are sucked into a vortex from which there is no respite. Lust, Caution is both resistance story and romantic high drama. 'If you pay attention, nothing is trivial,' says Tony Leung's Mr Yee to Wei Tang's Mrs Mak, when he makes his interest in her known. The same could be said for Lee's achingly beautiful film as it deals with delicate issues on a harsh backdrop.
He's not what I expected, Wei Tang's Wong Chia Chi says of Tony Leung's Mr Yee when she sees him for the first time. There's an encounter in the rain, a win at mahjong (these scenes have all the tension of a strategic battlefield) and a lunch loaded with implications. It is her first outing playing the real-life role of the imaginary Mrs Mak, and there is no safety net or rehearsal for this leading lady's performance. Tang, in her first screen role, is mesmerising as she transforms physically and emotionally from the naïve, shy student to the self-assured seductress. There is no fear in her eyes, something that Mr Yee observes immediately. Leung's Mr Yee is a wonderful creation, tempered by an ultra-dark undercurrent. His performance is still, yet we sense a tempest of conflict within. With minimal external evidence, we clearly get a sense of Mr Yee's capacity for cruelty as well as his yearning for comfort.
The much talked about sex scenes are artfully graphic, with bodies, arms and legs intertwined with devastating dependency. But these are far from gratuitous: Lee's intention to make us privy to the deep intimacy shared by Mr Yee and Mrs Mak is fully realised. He also keeps us in the dark about Wong Chia Chi's true feelings, allowing many layers of tension to build. All the performances are well measured: Joan Chen as the talkative Mrs Yee, whose battles are won at the mahjong table and Wang Leeham's revenge-driven Kuang Yu Min who discovers his priorities too late. With its haunting music score it's a masterfully created work tinged with a melancholy tone and one that couples innocence with complicit guilt.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
With exquisite attention to every detail, Ang Lee has crafted an erotic period spy thriller whose atmosphere lingers in the heart and mind. Tang Wei's vulnerable yet determined Wong Chia Cha is haunting as the amateur undercover resistance fighter who - in the time honoured tradition of spies like Mata Hari - must use her lovely body as the way into the confidence of the man she has to set up for the kill.
For all its similarities to other such wartime stories, Lust, Caution is also notably different in many ways. For a start, Ang Lee's interest is equally spread to the characters and to the story. That accounts for the film's length at two and a half hours; we are immersed in the era, the characters and the danger. The story takes us from Hong Kong to Shanghai and the period is superbly echoed by Lai Pan's wonderful production design. Alexandre Desplat's beautiful and melancholy score adds layers of emotion to the action, and the cast is superb.
Andy Lau's Yee is a steely, complex and ultimately tragic character whose image vacillates between cold, cruel collaborator and torturer (though Ang Lee never shows us Yee in action) and the increasingly seduced lover who falls for Wang's youth and innocence. We watch it all on the edge of our seats, both in fear of Wang's unmasking as a resistance fighter - and in awe of the illicit affair and its increasing intensity.
There's much talk about the sex scenes in the film; there are three, each increasing in intensity and frankness. The most graphic is the last, an extended erotic sequence in which Yee's sadistic tendencies are brought under control and Wang's capitulation to her heart is completed. It is at once tender and brutal, intense and unflinching. For some, it may be too confronting; each to his own. For me, these scenes add immeasurably to the intricate richness of the story and its characters, as they struggle against the tide of history and their own weaknesses and the tragedy of war.
Lust, Caution is a film which seeps into the subconscious and stays there like memories - until you imagine you might have lived through it yourself, as an unseen observer.
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LUST, CAUTION (R)
(US/China/Taiwan/Hong Kong, 2007)
CAST: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Wei Tang, Joan Chen, Lee-Hom Wang, Chung Hua Tou, Chih-ying Chu, Ying-hsien Kao, Yue-Lin Ko
PRODUCER: William Kong, Ang Lee
DIRECTOR: Ang Lee
SCRIPT: James Schamus, Hui-Ling Wang (story by Eileen Chang)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Rodrigo Prieto
EDITOR: Tim Squyres
MUSIC: Alexandre Desplat
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Lai Pan
RUNNING TIME: 157 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Universal
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: January 17, 2008