Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Lust, Caution (2007, USA/China/Taiwan/Hong Kong, Ang Lee)

After the commerical and critical success of 'Brokeback Mountain' (2005), Ang Lee has taken a slight misstep with 'Lust Caution', his first Chinese feature since 'Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon' (2000). It has already achieved a degree of notoriety pre-release because of the NC-17 rating it has been awarded (which basically means box office death in the US, but what hope would a small budget Chinese picture have, even if it is directed by Lee) for explicit sexuality. This might paradoxically give it a sense of commercial longevity, especially given the anticipation to its showing at the London Film Festival, as well as press coverage, so maybe it's not going to be a total write off, despite the lukewarm reviews received thus far.

Primarily an espionage thriller set during the Japanese occupation of China, the film begins with a sophisticated young woman named Mak Tai Tai (Wei Tang) in a bar making a clandestine telephone call before obviously meeting someone. The action then flashbacks four years just as troops of young Chinese men patriotically go to fight the Japanese. Mak Tai Tai is actually a young student named Wang Jiazhi, who becomes part of a drama troupe that is actually a fromt for underground activities and serves to raise Chinese morale. Their aim is to assassinate Mr Yee (Tony Leung), a collaborator known for his especially brutal methods at dealing with those who resist. Quite the skilled actress, Mak Tai Tai then takes on her greatest role - to seduce Mr Yee (whilst masquerading as the wife of a successful businessman) and make him vulnerable enough to assassination. Of course this leaves Mak Tai Tai vulnerable herself - to both love and the sexual desires of Mr Yee.

Many have compared 'Lust Caution' to 'Black Book' (2006), Paul Verhoeven's tale of a Jewish woman who infiltrates the Gestapo, but it also has traces of Alfred Hitchcock's 'Notorious' (1946), in which Ingrid Bergman had to feign love for a Nazi in order to bring him down. Given the graphic nature of Lee's film, it has far more in common with the former, and lacks the subtelty of the latter (wasn't sex more interesting in films when it was more chaste, when it was glances rather than organs everywhere, or is that just me?). Just for the sexual content, others look to Nagisa Oshima's 'In The Realm of the Senses' (1976), though it's not quite as deliriously crazed in that respect. Still, it's often pretty brutal stuff (especially the first time, which is pretty much anal rape, though her smile might suggest ultra-submissiveness). The fact that the underground resistance are not ready to go ahead with the assassination attempt means that the affair has to continue, which leaves her open to falling for Mr Yee and betraying her cause.

Lee's film looks nothing short of spectacular, but is seems a little all dressed up with nowhere to go. At 157 minutes, it's vastly too long, especially given that the first hour overelaborates the back story - it could have done with more editing. Given that the focus is on Mak Tai Tai's seduction of Mr Yee, do we need so much filler at the front end of the film? As much is devoted to the origins of the drama troupe as it is the main bulk of the narrative. It's interesting the next film rumoured to be made by Wong Kar Wai 'The Lady From Shanghai' (2008) isn't too far removed from Lee's film by the sound of things (both set during the 1930s, both espionage thrillers). I wonder what Wong might have made from this material. I'd be surprised if Wong would have filmed the relationship so explicity. For instance, the glances between Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in 'In The Mood For Love' (2000) were far sexier than the explicit sex on show here. Maybe I'm nitpicking. 'Lust Caution' is perfectly OK; you can't fault it's look or performances and I'm sure it will receive enough coverage to find an audience, but it just felt underwhelming and overlong.

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