After seeing Brokeback Mountain, with its sanctified couplings against a backdrop of purple mountain majesties, some of us felt that Ang Lee owed us a dirty movie with more bodily fluids. Lust, Caution is that movie—for maybe 10 of its 158 minutes. The rest of the film is absorbing, though. It opens in 1942, in Shanghai under Japanese rule. The heroine, Mak Tai Tai (Tang Wei), sits at a table with three older women, gossiping and playing mah-jongg. What the others don’t know is that her name is really Wong Chia Chi, she’s a member of the Chinese Resistance, and she’s there to entrap the husband of her hostess (Joan Chen), a top official in the collaborationist government. The scene, like the movie, is on the lengthy side, but it isn’t boring. By and by, the husband, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), shows up and gazes steadily at Tai Tai/Chia Chi. The atmosphere is fraught. There’s something about watching a luscious young woman sitting rigid in a blue satin dress buttoned up to her throat tossing mah-jongg tiles—clack clack clackclack clack—that makes a man want to see her naked, fast.
Mah-jongg and Ang Lee are a good fit—which I don’t mean remotely as an insult. The game is elegant, formal, and deliberate, but with a hint of repressed violence, as you know if you’ve seen old ladies play. Mah-jongg brackets Lust, Caution, which ends with a mournful cello and the staccato snap of tiles. The film, which jumps back to Hong Kong in 1938 to show how Chia Chi arrived at that table, is an enlargement of a short story by Eileen Chang, about whom Lee writes in an afterword to a new, movie-tie-in edition: “To me, no writer has ever used the Chinese language as cruelly…and no story of hers is as beautiful or as cruel as ‘Lust, Caution.’” What drew him to Chang’s work is plain. Like Lee’s other films, Lust, Caution grows out of a tension between essence and form—between a person’s emotions and the role he or she must play. Obedient Chinese girls are not supposed to sword-fight Wutan style, corkscrew through the air over rooftops, or have rough sex with hairy bandits. Marlboro men aren’t supposed to smooch.
Young women patriotically playacting to lure war criminals to their deaths aren’t supposed to give themselves completely to their prey, either, but our heroine is a romantic who weeps at movies and loses herself in her performances. As Chia Chi, with straight hair and no makeup, Tang Wei looks and acts 15, and her face is wide open, guileless. As Tai Tai, she’s ripe, lissome, and teasingly furtive. She meets Yee’s eyes, looks away quickly, and meets his eyes again. When he brutally takes her, the first time, the girl underneath cries out in pain and disgust, but the actress, when it’s over, gives a little smile. Or is it the other way around?
Yee is even more difficult to anatomize. One of Hong Kong’s most galvanic stars (in Hero, he made sand-writing overpoweringly erotic), Leung has shrunk and aged himself, so that Yee seems ill at ease in his body. Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book had a similar scenario (Resistance lass seduces Axis bigwig), but the heroine’s Gestapo lover was a sweetie under those jackboots and swastikas. Leung’s Yee has been coarsened by presiding over tortures and executions, and those bad habits come out in the bedroom. He knows that Tai Tai might be a spy—he has ferreted out other would-be lovers/assassins. But the risk brings him out of his paranoid-authoritarian little shell.
How’s the sex? Terrific, but not because the bodies are so great (although they are) or the positions so arousing (although there is a kind of pretzel-y thing they do I’d like to see diagrammed). It’s because instead of a tasteful fade to black, we see another dimension of character. Who has the real power? Who’s caught in whose web? At their most enmeshed, Chia Chi and Yee are both the spider and both the fly. (We should thank James Schamus, the head of Focus Features, for standing his ground and refusing to order Lee to trim the sex scenes for an R rating. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that he’s also the movie’s co-writer and co-producer.)
There are other “actors” in over their heads in Lust, Caution—some of them members of Chia Chi’s little theater troupe–cum–assassination squad, a group of ex–drama majors who try to enlarge their stage to encompass the world. There’s a scene that isn’t from the story—a grueling bloodbath that rips the movie’s fabric but drives home the point (literally) that killing someone for real is murder. Lee studs Lust, Caution with reflections in mirrors and windows to underline the larger question of identity: Which is the true face and which is the mask? But you don’t have to bother with all that stuff—Tang Wei’s face is nice enough in all its guises.