Fans of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon be warned. Lee's 2007 thriller about WWII espionage was never intended for the masses. Although Lee has cinematically transmitted "Chinese Sense and Sensibility for 'Western Dummies'" more than any director, his Lust, Caution (Se, jie) is a more private affair—suitable only for select art house patrons who avoid shopping mall Multi-Plexes. More akin to Brokeback Mountain and The Ice Storm, Lee's latest unfurls at the same pace as a doomed lotus blossom. And just as beautifully with the year's most sensuous cinematography.
Plot wise, Lust, Caution slowly meanders like the numerous all night Mah-Jongg games that pepper the narrative that spans Hong Kong and Shanghai between 1938-42, during the Japanese occupation. Hostess of the games is Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen), whose husband (Tony Leung) has risen up the socio-economic ladder by serving as collaborator—interrogating and torturing subjects before issuing execution orders for Chinese resistance fighters. Frequenting Mrs. Yee's marathon games is young Mrs. Mak (Wei Tang), whose husband always seems to be away with his import/export business. A lousy Mah-Jongg player, Mrs. Mak ingratiates herself to Mrs. Yee with her knowledge of the best restaurants, tailors, and easy conversation. She connects with Mr. Yee more intimately.
A Hong Kong flashback explains how Mrs. Mak is really acting student Wong Chia Chi, who joins forces with a group of radical Chinese resistors determined to use their contacts to assassinate Mr. Yee. Unschooled in love making, the only "experienced" actor in the troupe offers perfunctory services, but this is prelude to the Kama Sutra orgy that evolves when Mr. Yee falls for the bait. These form the scenes that earn the film its NC-17 rating and have been cut from the Chinese version, yet form the crux of the narrative. Details concerning Mr. Yee's work are only hinted at but are best exposed through his bedroom gyrations. Most shocking is his first encounter with his mistress—a violent S&M session that reveals Yee's sadistic side or possibly expresses just how distressed he feels about betraying his people for position and profit.
Considering that Tony Leung is commonly regarded as the "Chinese Clark Gable," it's difficult to watch him inflict such brutality, other than appreciate his supreme acting work. Leung has long specialized in natural, subtle work, using his sensitive eyes and facial expressions to express loneliness and longing in such films as Happy Together, In the Mood for Love, 2046, and Infernal Affairs. With Leung, it's always the non-verbal communication that is most important. Once again he portrays a tortured and restrained soul, but one who unleashes his passions within the secretive haunts of the bedroom. Though unspoken, he communicates his conflict and succeeds in making his detestable character a sympathetic one.
Likewise, kudos to Wei Tang for her performance as the doomed lover who lures her prey but gets caught up in the moment and grows to care about him. It would be easy for her to become dominated by such a consummate actor as Leung, yet she silently holds her own when sharing the screen. Unlike traditional western films, the most important cues come from non-verbal subtleties—observe her eyes and small gestures closely for their nuances.
Both risk everything by following their lustful urges, and the basic narrative thread feels inevitable by the end. But that';s all beside the point. Lee takes us on the most intimate of journeys inside the moral alleyways of a twisted political system that devalues the individual, and that's what makes this character study so intense and suspenseful. It takes longer than expected before getting inside the characters, but they linger within the mind long after the final credits roll. Lust, Caution ranks among the strongest films of the year, and is likely to be re-examined and savored by art house lovers a decade from now.