Too long, too slow, too self-indulgent and too brutal in its graphic sex scenes, Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” is a film not to be missed. Whatever misgivings there may be about it, this festival-winning film is a mesmerizing, rich experience. After 2 1/2 hours of being bombarded with a World War II love-and-hate story that’s both exciting and dragging, chances are you will be still pinned to your seat, anxious to find out how it ends.
The “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Brokeback Mountain” director has turned his attention to war-threatened Hong Kong in 1938 and Japanese-occupied Shanghai in 1942 (complete with a “safe Japanese zone”), seen through the eyes of a group of young Chinese resistance fighters.
Based on the late Chinese-American writer Eileen Chang’s short story of the same name, the focus of “Se, jie” is the relationship between Mr. Yee, head of the ruthless Japanese-collaborator security forces (played by Tony Leung, leading man of some 80 films) and a young actress with the resistance, played by Wei Tang, in her very first film role.
They make a strange pair, both in the roles and as actors. Of the story — a cat-and-mouse game between the seductress/underground agent and the Japanese puppet/lord of life and death among the occupied — the less said the better in order to enjoy the movie. As actors, it’s a veteran facing a newchallenge and a novice who shows great skill and assurance.
Leung has always been a brooding, sympathetic, worn-but-handsome presence, especially in his collaborations with director Wong Kai Wai. Here, for the first time, he plays not just a heavy, ugly character, but a scary, unhappy, murderous man, literally a dark figure lurking in the shadows. It’s a great performance, fully realizing both aspects of the character: the monster and the man.
Lee’s love for cinema classics is shown both in his use of excerpts from Hollywood greats (as the young actress frequents movie theaters) and in his creation of memorable images. This is a director with a painterly sensibility and the ability to transform objects into instantly memorable pictures.
Never will you see mahjong again without recalling “Lust, Caution.” Few of Lee’s favorite classics can match the simple effectiveness of his final image here, of a sheet with slight depressions left by what rested on it shortly before: white on white, and yet meaningful and affecting.
Leung and Tang fairly monopolize the screen, but the rest of the large cast is outstanding, led by San Franciscan Joan Chen as Yee’s wife, and the vivid individual characters in the resistance, including the American-born Chinese pop star Leehom Wang.
Lust, Caution ***
Starring Tony Leung, Wei Tang, Joan Chen, Leehom Wang
Written by Wang Hui-Ling, James Schamus, based on Eileen Chang’s short story
Directed by Ang Lee
Running time: 2 hours, 38 minutes