Lust, Caution **
Directed by Ang Lee
Written by James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang, based on the short story by Eileen Chang
Joan Chen as Mrs. Yee
Tony Leung Chiu Wai as Mr. Yee
Lee-Hom Wang as Kuang Yu-Min
Wei Tang as Wang Jiazhi
157 Minutes(Rated NC-17 for some explicit sexuality. )
Now, I'd be honest right off the bat with you. I feel Ang Lee gets a little bit too much credit. I enjoyed "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" immensely, and "The Ice Storm" broke my heart, but I really was not the "Brokeback Mountain" bandwagon, but even that was better than his latest film-the highly anticipated and controversial "Lust, Caution,"-which I guess is the first film since "Where the Truth Lies" to be released with an NC-17 rating, but I could be wrong. This reviews for this film have been quite mixed, and I can say honestly that I did not like this movie. At 157 minutes, when all was said and done, I still felt like it was missing something-maybe it was passion or chemistry or suspense or even anything for me to care about. Nice imagery can only go so far. Lee has expanded a short story again, and while "Brokeback Mountain" was about a half hour shorter than this, the irony is that the story that "Lust, Caution" is based on is even shorter.
First of all, there were several "beginnings" to this movie, all of them promising for the story to make a jump start, and then pulling a fast one on you and having another introduction to the plot. The story doesn't actually start for an hour, and we get a rather annoying prelude to the plot. We start with Wei Tang, a newcomer to Asian cinema, who plays Wang Jiazhi in the middle of the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. She joins a theatre group that at first wants to unite the country, and then they decide to actually shed some blood for the country. And they decide to target one of the leaders, and prime bad men, Mr. Yee, played by Tony Leung, who has had many many better moments. Wang ends up pretending to be Mrs. Mak, the wife of a very respected importer/exporter, who is really just another member of the group, and ends up becoming his mistress. But she doesn't expect that she would fall in love with him.
Now the NC-17 rating has been talked about just because its rare for a film to receive it, and then it's even rarer for studios and the director and everyone to completely accept the rating. However Lee and Focus Features were right not to edit this movie. The sex here is not tacked on or un-needed. It's actually the most important sex that has been viewed on the screen since the summer's French film, the much better and much lovelier "Lady Chatterley," which is coming to DVD soon for everybody to see. I could also argue that the so called "explicit sexual content" is the motif to describe romance, but "Hostel" is basically just torture porn and that gets away with an R rating. But that's another argument for another day. The prime romance and chemistry between the two is meant to take place during the sex scenes-that is where the actual passion and heat is supposed to be shown, as opposed to in dialogue and conversation-which is minimal for them-after all they are both lying to each other in their own ways, and their entire relationship is based on deception. But not in bed. The final shot of the film is a shot of a bed too-I won't say what leads up to that, but it basically summed it up. This is more or less the main subtext between their romance-they act how they feel instead of saying it.
Now the beginning does a few shifts in time. We begin in the "present" day-present day being in the mid 1900's-where Wang has successfully infiltrated a group of ladies, one of them being Mrs. Yee. The conversations that are had during the games that the ladies play-a game I didn't know the object of, but if anybody knows I'd like to know-and the conversations had between the ladies are an interesting parallel to the lack of conversation between the two romantic leads-these ladies actually say everything. And then we go into the past where we learn of Wang's background with the theatre group, and a rather long first attempt she had at seducing Mr. Yee. That ends quickly, and we end up going back to square one again, and she once again gets into the group and tries to seduce the leader. I actually felt like I was cheated out of an hour. We go around in circles for awhile being we actually advance in plot. There is also barely any tension between the two, even though the script clearly calls for some actual sexual tension between the leads. And knowing how its all going to turn out is no help, as when there is supposed to be suspense, there is none. Except for a masterful scene of how the theatre/terrorist group ended up disbanding the first time, I was actually struggling to keep my eyes open several times during the last hour or so. I hardly use the word "boring" because I like to find other reasons why I don't like films, but I'll admit it: I was honestly very much bored by this. And I could swear I heard a few snores around me.
I will credit the period feel-the costumes designs, the set designs, the whole 1800's Shanghai feel is very much there. Lee has always been great with visuals-the mountains in "Brokeback," the wire fighting of "Crouching Tiger," the freezing trees and roads in "The Ice Storm," and even "Hulk" had it fair share of neat visuals-and the Hulk himself was an interesting creation. But pretty images can only go so far. I was never involved in what was happening in this film for a second, mainly because of the lack of energy on the acting front-that and the main characters were very much underwritten. I really feel that this will be the first of two disappointing follow-ups of the year, the other being Baumbach's "Margot at the Wedding" which I did not care for very much either.
This movie is playing at one location here in New York City-the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas-but its set for a mild expansion next week-the Sunshine has it planned. It'll be hard to get a strong expansion like "Brokeback Mountain" because of the NC-17, so I really wouldn't hold my breath for small towns with big chain movie theatre.