Review: Lust, Caution (2007) *** 1/2

Lust, Caution

If I only went by my first impressions, I’d have to say Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution was a bit of a dud. It’s been a while since I’ve wanted to like a movie so much and come away from it liking it so little. Art School Confidential was probably the last movie to disappoint me as much. Unlike the Zwigoff film however, I found myself warming up to Lust, Caution the more I thought about it afterwards. This is a long, languid and elusive film that doesn’t give up its secrets immediately. I left the theater exhausted and more than a little frustrated, wondering how Lee had managed to turn a short story into a 2 hour and 40 minute marathon and not sure if it was worth the effort. The morning after however, as I’ve had time to absorb what I’ve seen, my feelings are more positive. It’s still the same long, slow and vague movie, but it’s also beautiful and sad and a lot more rewarding than I originally thought.

The story takes place during World War II in Japanese occupied China. Wei Tang plays a young woman who goes from student to actor to activist to spy. Chinese superstar Tony Leung plays the other main character, a Chinese collaborator with the Japanese who has been targeted for assassination by the resistance movement. The bulk of the film involves the efforts of Wei to infiltrate the life (and bed) of Leung and the aftermath of her actions. There are more characters and some additional bits of business, but that’s essentially it for nearly 160 beautiful yet grueling minutes.

Inevitably, comparisons will be drawn between Lust, Caution and Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, a film that is also set during WWII and also features a heroine who uses sex as a weapon to wage war. The Verhoeven film is more entertaining on its surface and more instantly gratifying however, playing at times like an action film. Underneath I think it also contains a more overtly political or social message than Lust, Caution which is more interested in the personal and largely interior struggles of two people.

It is partly this nature, the essentially internal, that helps make Lust, Caution such a challenge. Much of what happens on the screen is subtext. Lee doesn’t hit you over the head with the internal lives of his characters. Much happens with expressions and exchanged glances and it’s left to the viewers to tease out what people are thinking. That’s preferable to say, Paul Haggis, a filmmaker whose character’s inner lives are seemingly dictated by the needs of his screenplay, but it also demands a lot of work from the viewer. It doesn’t help that the film is subtitled for those who don’t speak Mandarin. I don’t mind subtitles, but I felt like I was missing out on much of the film’s subtlety just keeping up with the dialogue.

Eventually (after the fact), I found my way inside of these characters and that’s when things started to get more interesting. It took me a while, but I came to see the two leads as tragic figures in terms of the sacrifices they make for their cause. Wei gives not only her body, but essentially her whole life to the seduction of this man over the course of years. She spends most of her life acting a role. She’s never allowed to show her true nature. Once, early in the film, she’s shown sitting in a movie theater watching Ingrid Bergman in Intermezzo and she’s crying. You realize she’s crying more for herself than the characters on the screen and it’s the last time until perhaps the end of the movie that we see her this openly emotional. Tellingly, it happens in the dark where no one can see her.

Leung is the bad guy of the story, but it’s not as simple and clear cut as good vs. evil. He has made sacrifices of his own. Working for the collaborationists, he lives in constant fear of reprisal. He is able to trust no one and can’t let anyone close to him. He can’t speak of these things, but the isolation is worn into his face. He’s a lonely man, but what would amount to a simple indiscretion for most men is for him fraught with peril. He’s reticent, but sad and always watchful.

Ultimately, both of these characters are unable to reveal their true selves, but for different reasons. She’s acting a part, and for him self revelation would be a weakness. These veils the characters wear is what makes the movie fascinating, but is also what makes it difficult to warm up to. I spent all of my energy trying to get inside these characters and to understand what they were thinking and feeling. I kept thinking I knew who they were and where they were going but I was continually surprised. When Wei and Leung finally have sex, both characters take a turn that I didn’t expect. I don’t want to say too much about it because I think it’s a defining moment and one of the keys to appreciating the film. Again though, because Lee is so subtle, the scene can be taken in multiple ways. Was Leung just testing Wei, was he acting out his true desires, or both? Wei’s reaction later as she’s laying alone on the bed exhausted from sex adds a final mysterious twist to what just happened. Did she like it or does she simply feel satisfied she’s finally got Leung on the hook? Is it pleasure or business or a little of each? After it’s over you wonder if their vigorous sex showed us something honest for once or if it was just another layer of performance.

In the end, Lust, Caution is not the kind of movie that leaves you feeling elevated and entertained. You won’t leave the theater with a smile on your face. It’s a movie that needs to be digested and isn’t really suitable for a simple evening’s amusement. The pleasures aren’t immediate. They come later when you ponder it and try to piece together what you’ve seen and talk about it with your friends. It’s not a movie for all tastes. It’s not even the kind of movie I’d want to see every trip to the theater, but it’s worth seeing if you’ve got the patience. I recommend it.

Lust, Caution (Se, jei). Hong Kong/USA/China 2007. Directed by Ang Lee. Written by James Schamus and Wang Hui-Ling from the short story by Eileen Chang. Cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto. Music score composed by Alexandre Desplat. Production design by Pan Lai. Starring Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Wei Tang, Joan Chen and Lee-Hom Wang. In Mandarin with subtitles. 2 hours 37 minutes. Rated NC-17 for some explicit sexuality. 3.5 stars (out of 5)


13 thoughts on “Review: Lust, Caution (2007) *** 1/2

  1. For me, the most interesting aspect of the movie was the ways in which the two leads have compromised themselves in order to survive in a world turned upside down by war and further, how both of them of them funnel their emotional pain through their sexual encounters with each other.

    Yee may be a sadist by nature or simply a sadist because it is the only way he can resolve the incredible demons he harbors for what he must do in order to survive. Wong must use her sexuality to complete her mission and in so doing, give up a large portion of her humanity and self-respect.

    In this, I thought the film did a masterful job of dissecting the inner turmoil of two heavily-conflicted but determined individuals. The problem is that the movie takes a round-about jounrey to get to this result and ultimately, I’m not sure if the end justifies the means.

    Your comments on the similarities to Black Book are interesting. And you touched on a similarity to Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah that I found compelling: Yee’s behavior seems to be a twisted acting-out response to the horrors his chosen position requires of him. This would seem to be similar to the commentary Haggis is making about the emotional devastation the soldiers returning from war bring home with them. It’s an interesting commentary and honestly, i wished Ang Lee had fleshed this out better.

    Overall, I think Lust, Caution is a film that will hold up better once it’s again to exist outside our expectations of the people involved. As it is, it suffers from its own length and a somewhat convoluted narrative. But I thought the performances worked well in spite of that.

  2. Compromise in a world turned upside down is a good way of putting it. Additionally what was interesting to me was that Ang Lee didn’t seem to be passing judgement on either side of the conflict. Though Yee is clearly the bad guy, he’s looked at in a sympathetic light, and the final scene ***Spoilers Kinda*** of him sitting on the bed, looking like he was crying, wondering what he’d lost was pretty moviing ****End Spoilers****

    It wasn’t a direct anti-war message but it definitely said “look at how something like war destroys lives on all sides”. That’s sort of another tie in with Mr. Haggis though I think Haggis was less artful about it. What does it say about me thought that I found Elah to be the more entertaining movie, if ultimately less sophisticated.

    Lust, Caution may ultimately have been defeated by it’s own subtlety. Ang Lee absolutely refused to make an overt statement. I like subtlety, but I also like to be led by the hand just a little bit. Lust, Caution kind of plunked you down in this world and let you figure it out for yourself.

    Not a perfect movie, and perhaps ultimately I’m being too generous when at first I was maybe too critical, but it gets a lot of bonus points for being unusual and interesting.

    How about the knife murder scene? Was that intense or what??

    Anyway, glad I saw it and I’d like to see it again some day, but I’m not going to run around recommending it to everyone I see.

  3. The knife murder scene is all the more interesting since Lee references Hitchcock’s Suspicion earlier in the movie via a movie poster. I mention it because the murder reminded me a lot of the famous sequence in Torn Curtain, which a couple of critics referenced in their reviews of Eastern Promises (natch). Sometimes killing a man isn’t easy. Or quick.

  4. At the risk of sounding like the anal retentive poster, isn’t the film rated NC-17 for explicit sexuality? I’m normally not one to quibble over such things, but its nice that Schamus told the MPAA where to stick their rating.

  5. Nice catch. I was beginning to wonder if anyone actually read those blurbs at the end! You are correct of course and I have no excuse for myself. Heh heh.

    Joel, there were a lot of little allusions to western movies sprinkled in there which I thought was interesting. You know, I’ve seen all of Ang Lee’s stuff, but I don’t really have an angle on him, you know what I mean? I don’t know that much about him or know what his influences are. I haven’t been able to put him in a box like some of the other directors I like. Maybe it’s time to have an Ang Lee retrospective. I haven’t seen Eat Drink, Man Woman in ages.

  6. It is pretty amazing that the studio stood by the film and has been running it like it’s nothing more than a R-rated Drama. Of course, it helps that the President of the studio is intimately involved in the film and the creative partner of the director but Come on! Still fairly amazing.

    I can’t imagine how the film would work if those scenes were cut. Even though some of it tends to be a little repetitive, a really important aspect of the character development is brought out in those various scenes. I heard Lee is cutting it down a bit for China…I wonder what they will end up lettinghim get away with.

  7. It’s a rare case where the director insists that the sex serves a purpose and he’s not lying. It helped reveal the characters and took the story in a new direction.

    Here’s my question and this fits my opinion of a ***SPOILER**** I was so surprised by Mr. Yee’s violence in the first scene. Did you wonder at all if he was just testing her to see how far she would go and if she was for real? And how about her little smile after it was over? Did she like it or was she smiling because she knew she finally suckered him in?

  8. You guys are really getting me interested in this one, I love the general slow burn method of Ang Lee anyway, and applying that method to this sort of material sounds really promising. I haven’t seen it, but Lust, Caution sounds like it could be this year’s The Good Shephard, in that its a slow, meticulous film that goes way underappreciated. Obviously you guys know better than me though, at this point. The go to theatre around here for obscure has slated this one for early Nov.

    Also, in the ongoing, should we or shouldn’t we be tired of directors returning to similar material debate, Ang Lee proves that general thematic obsessions can be explored over and over again in different, intriguing fashions.

  9. As a guy who’s on record enjoying Wes Anderson going to the same thematic and cinematic wells time and time again (yes goddamnit, the slow-motion-60s-pop-song routine works on me every time) it should be obvious where I stand on the similar material debate. I’m all for it.

    I think most great directors returned to similar obsessions and themes time and time again. Or maybe we just like to pidgeonhole them and we look for what we want to look for. Maybe this is partly why a director like Michael Curtiz gets no respect, because he’s all over the map. You can’t peg a style or a theme to him from one movie to the next. He seems like the ultimate director-for-hire. And maybe he was. I don’t know, I’m rambling.

    Joel linked me to an interesting interview with Ang Lee over at Greencine:

    As for Lust, Caution… as you can see I had a hard time with it. I think you should see it, but don’t go in tired or distracted. Your results may vary. When I sat down to write about it, I literally started it as a regretful pan, but somehow I came around. It was strange. I’ve never had that happen before.

    In a way it does have a lot in common with Good Shephard because a lot of that movie also happened on the inside of extremely repressed characters. Interesting.

  10. We saw Lust, Caution last night and found it surprisingly excellent. I know there have been complaints about the meandering pace of the first 2/3 but we had no problem with it. I think the set-up needed to take its time – to establish a sense of place, time, and character that was crucial to the multi-layered dynamics and high stakes suspense of the last third pay-off. And there was plenty to enjoy in Lee’s stylistic homage to the fetishized elegance of fashion and faces in prestige suspense films of the late ’30s and ’40s.

    The acting of the two leads was outstanding. And the much noted sex scenes were among the best I’ve ever seen in terms of represention of character dynamic and development. There was nothing particularly gratuitous or sensual about them, though they were powerfully charged – the explicitness was in keeping with the emotional rawness. Two individuals whose very survival depended upon caution and deception negotiate self-loathing, disgust, and repulsion to find their way into each other’s hearts. But unlike a Hollywood film the ending that results from this unfolding is true to life. Many of the final scenes were memorable for their nuanced complexity, but the one that stays with me the most saw Tang Wei perform a traditional Chinese song for her lover, she is getting ever closer to being authentically his lover rather than someone playing at it. And his heart of basalt is visibly melting in the face of the genuine love being expressed through her siren’s song.

    Tony Leung perfectly channels Bogie’s stoicism in this performance but adds to it subtle depth. And Tang Wei is a revelation. It’s the best performance from an actress I’ve seen this season, though there are others of renown still before me.

    The film also contained the most shocking scene of violence I’ve encountered among current films – involving the murder of a collaborator. More so than anything I saw in American Gangster, No Country, or There Will be Blood.

    2007 is indeed proving to be an exceptional year in cinema.

  11. As you know from my review I at first struggled with Lust Caution, yet once I started writing about it, it won me over somehow. A lot of people are comparing it unfavorably to Wong Kar-Wai. I don’t know.

    So much of what was happening in the movie was under the surface and maybe that’s what makes it difficult for people who went in expecting the “Ang Lee Sex Movie”

    I assume you’re talking about the knifing scene. Very very disturbing.

  12. I admire Kar-Wai’s ambition and unique cinematic voice. And thus far it was most perfectly expressed for me through In the Mood for Love. But his style is more abstract and elliptical. It wouldn’t have been a good fit with a subtle exploration of a plausibly complex psychological dynamic. This is very much an Ang Lee film.

  13. I can’t pretend to be a Wong Kar-Wai expert. He’s another one of those blind spots in my cinema education I seek to fill soon. In the Mood for Love was difficult but beautiful.

    I can’t help but think people who are wrting Lust Caution off as inferior Wong Kar-Wai are being intellectually lazy. As you say, Ang has his own set of strenghts and they’re amply on display here. Anyone who saw Ice Storm should recognize Lust Caution as an Ang Lee film through and through.

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