Lust, Caution

  • Period thriller
  • Written by James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang, from a story by Eileen Chang
  • Directed by Ang Lee

For an independent filmmaker, Ang Lee sure knows his basic commercial genres–knows them well enough to shake them up, spin them around, and turn them on their head. He’s turned the kung fu flick into romantic tragedy (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), made the American Civil War a new experience (Ride with the Devil), and examined homosexuality through the prisms of the marriage comedy (The Wedding Banquet) and the western (Brokeback Mountain). Ironically, he took his one big fall when he tried his hand at big-budget Hollywood genre fare with The Hulk.

He doesn’t alter the conventions of the Hitchcockian thriller much in Lust, Caution, and I can’t discuss these alternations without giving away too much of the story. But he deepens those conventions, turning the thriller into a study of a young woman (newcomer Wei Tang as Wang Jiazhi) who must turn herself into someone she is not in order to seduce a man and set him up for assassination.

Her target (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) is a monster, but he’s a very human monster. Collaborating with the Japanese occupation of China (the film is set from 1938 through 1942), he oversees the torture of political prisoners. And while he never appears to regret his actions, there’s a sense that they’re taking a psychic toll. He’s cold, remote, and emotionally cut off from those around him. No wonder he falls for the beautiful young woman who comes into his life.

Yes, the plot sounds a bit like Notorious. There’s even a Cary Grant equivalent in the handsome young idealist who sends the heroine on her journey despite their mutual but unspoken love. I doubt it was an accident. When Wang Jiazhi enters a movie house (something she doesn’t often in the picture–a woman after my own heart), we see Grant on a poster for Hitchcock’s Suspicion. And Lee pays homage to the one good scene in Torn Curtain, when the amateur spies discover just how difficult it is to kill a human being.

Because of it’s NC-17 rating, all critics reviewing Lust, Caution must discuss the sex. That rating is earned by two very graphic sex scenes late in the picture. An R-rated version would have been an inferior Lust, Caution–we learn something about these characters and their changing relationship through the explicit nature of these scenes. Are they erotic? A little bit. But they are very revealing–in the emotional sense of the word.

If you go to Lust, Caution looking for arousal, you’re going to be disappointed. But if you go looking for a compelling story, insightful characters, an introduction to a time and place outside of your own experience, and masterful filmmaking, you’ll get more than your money’s worth.