Movie Review: Désir, danger
By Michael Phillips, Tribune Movie Critic
Director Ang Lee does not scream "technique." He's more of a stealth craftsman, and when his patience and compositional reserve grace the right material - his best work to date includes "The Ice Storm" and "Brokeback Mountain" - the results are hands-off, or at least they play that way, giving the story and the characters their due.
Despite its recent win at the Venice Film Festival, Lee's newest, "Lust, Caution," betrays as much indecision as craft. You wonder if Lee ever figured out a way to approach the project. Two scenes belie the general torpor of this World War II-era spy drama, based on a novella by Eileen Chang. The scenes involve lust, not caution; the rest of the movie is devoted to caution - not the subtly revealing mask-like sort, but cinematic caution verging on stiltedness.
Think "Notorious" in Shanghai, tripping over its own flashbacks. In 1942, Japanese-occupied Shanghai is a place of secrets and lies. Around a mah-jongg table, a group of perfectly coiffed and duplicitous ladies discuss the daily gossip. A younger woman (Tang Wei), new to the city, exchanges glances with the man of the house (Tony Leung), whose wife (Joan Chen) rules the social roost. The man's wife does not yet realize her cool, remote husband, a player in the collaborationist government, is about to embark on an affair with the newest member of the mah-jongg circle.
"Lust, Caution" then skips back four years to show us who Wei's character really is: an idealistic revolutionary, whose fellow anti-Japanese activists concoct a plan wherein she poses as the wife of a traveling businessman. She's to insinuate herself with Leung's character for political gain. She succeeds.
The film itself succeeds fully only when, after a brutal first encounter, director Lee takes us to bed. The sex scenes in "Lust, Caution," carefully composed but not studied, earned (misguidedly) the film a commercially prohibitive NC-17 rating. Really, I just love the priorities of the Motion Picture Association of America, which never met a heap of gore it couldn't award an R, while fretting on our behalf regarding full-frontal nudity. Outside the bedroom, the wartime swirl of intrigue never develops beyond postcard imagery, however. This is one of the major disappointments of the film-going year.
Directed by Ang Lee; screenplay by Wang Hui Ling and James Schamus, based on the short story by Eileen Chang; photographed by Rodrigo Prieto; edited by Tim Squyres; music by Alexandre Desplat; production design by Pan Lai; produced by Bill Kong, Ang Lee and James Schamus. A Focus Features release. Running time: 2:38. MPAA rating: NC-17 (some explicit sexuality).
Mr. Yee - Tony Leung
Wong Chia Chi/Mak Tai Tai - Tang Wei
Yee Tai Tai - Joan Chen