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Lust, Caution

Nicola Mostyn on Ang Lee’s new film of espionage, sex and the Second World War

Published on January 8th 2008.

Lust, Caution

In his first film since Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee gives us a story set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai taken from the novel by Eileen Chang. At the centre of the film is Wong Chia Chi (Wei Tang), a Chinese student who, at the bidding of the handsome, intense Kuang Yu Min (Wang Leehom), joins a drama group determined to support the ‘drums and gongs of resistance’ with their patriotic plays. But when the group gets the chance to infiltrate the home of a Japanese collaborator they take their theatrics to an entirely new level and, as their gifted leading lady, Wong is plunged into a dangerous game of seduction as she sets about entrapping the powerful, mistrustful Mr Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai).

From The Ice Storm to Crouching Tiger, Sense and Sensibility to Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee’s great ability, it appears, is to present settings which are already fascinating in their own right and then strip back the layers to reveal the potent human emotions underneath.

So it is with Lust, Caution. The setting is compelling and expertly depicted: the effects of the Second World War are all around in the instability and grainy poverty of the Shanghai streets, against which the rich housewives, who Wong befriends, are set like precious stones. Using the customs and political turbulence of the times, Ang Lee presents an atmosphere of incredible constraints in which one may be constantly watched, or watching, and in which every word is weighed and measured. In this inhibited setting, details and nuances take on added meaning: a look from a driver may spell disaster, sensuality comes from the handling of a key or lipstick on a cup, all of which creates an enduring tension against which Wong begins, carefully, to lure her target into danger.

Cinema-goers soley attracted by the promises of explicit sex might want to have a rethink: when the sex finally happens it is only after a period of immense, riveting pressure and, as well as erotic, the scenes are aggressive and darkly passionate, brutal and hostile and extremely fascinating. Both Wong and Yee are playing a part, it seems, but in their explosive encounters comes a sort of violent blurring, as though an attempt to cross physical, as well as emotional or mental, boundaries is being made.

Lust, Caution has an excellent cast but at the centre blaze Tony Leung Chiu Wai as Mr Yee and Wei Tang and Wong. While Tony Leung Chiu Wai is expressive and indefinably threatening as the taciturn Yee, Tang is simply magnetic as Wong. The fact that the former is one of Hong Kong’s biggest actors while the latter is a complete newcomer presumably added yet another dynamic to this many-layered film.

As well as questions of love and loyalty in this film, there is also a strong theme of ‘playing’ and with it ideas of duplicity, gamesmanship, luck and identity; in the painted faces of the geisha girls in the Japanese quarter, in Wong’s fake ‘life’ as Mrs Mak; in the American movies she likes to watch, and, most plainly, in the constant games of mah-jong that Wong must take part in to ingratiate herself into Yee’s wife’s house and achieve her goal.

This is a superb film which manages to be emotionally and thematically intricate, despite its epic setting, a film in which every detail is matters. In fact, Yee’s words to Wong make pretty good pre-viewing advice: “If you pay attention, nothing is trivial.”

Rating: 9/10

Lust, Caution is showing @ FACT, Wood Street, until Thursday.

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