Tuesday, January 8, 2008
LUST, CAUTION (2007) - Ang Lee
In recent times, Ang Lee’s films have caused quite a bit of controversy. Whether it’s annoying comic book fans with an arty adaptation of Marvel’s Hulk, or releasing a gay cowboy film in Brokeback Mountain, it seems that controversy and Ang Lee are quickly becoming synonymous with each other. Lee once again courts controversy with his World War Two espionage thriller, Lust, Caution. A film that really raised the eyebrows of the Chinese government due to the explicit sexual nature of some of the scenes in the film, we European filmgoers finally get a chance to see what the fuss is all about this month.
Lust, Caution opens in Shanghai in 1942. A well dressed woman enters a cafe and calls people who appear to be part of the Chinese resistance against the Japanese occupying forces. In a flashback, we go back to 1938. The woman is not as well off as she is set to become and is instead, Wong Chia Chi a poor student who’s father has left her behind in China after the outbreak of hostilities with the Japanese. Wong Chia Chi falls in with an amateur drama group in university, who stage a patriotic play which garners quite a bit of praise, especially for Wong Chia Chi. Wanting to take their patriotism one step further, the group decide to assassinate a member of the collaborationist government, Mr. Yee. It is up to Wong Chia Chi, who now goes under the guise of Mrs. Mak, the wife of a business man. However, Wong Chia Chi is a little too good in her role and as she gets closer to Mr. Yee, she finds her feelings compromised.
Ang Lee has a talent for taking short stories and developing them into epic films, as seen with Brokeback Mountain and again here, with Lust, Caution. The film is adapted from Eileen Chang’s short story, and in Lee’s hands, it feels like the kind of noir thriller you’d expect from post-war US cinema. And while this is filmed in Mandarin, it is not for a second inaccessible to English-speaking audiences. It deals with universal themes of identity and betrayal, and while you may have to speed-read some of the more dialogue-heavy scenes, you’ll never find yourself lost. It’s a slow-paced film, but deliberately so. It draws you in slowly and builds in tension as Wong and Mr. Yee fall into a very dangerous relationship.
In a film of this kind, casting is essential. And in leading lady, Tang Wei, Ang Lee has made something of a revelation. She is absolutely brilliant as Wong Chia Chi. It’s remarkable to think that this is her first acting role, as her performance is so delicate and nuanced. It’s not an easy role to play as at any one time, Wong Chia Chi is herself playing a number of roles. She’s the member of a highly illegal resistance force, something that would see her sentenced to death if caught. At the same time, she is playing the character of Mrs. Mak and finds herself getting consumed by her target, Mr. Yee. It’s a difficult role, yet Tang Wei handles it perfectly.
Playing opposite her is Tony Leung as Mr. Yee. Leung will be familiar with those who have seen Wong Kar-Wai’s utterly brilliant In The Mood For Love where he played the sympathetic, shy Chow Mo-Wan, a man who’s wife was having an affair. His role in Lust, Caution is a polar opposite to that role, this time he is surprisingly vicious and unsympathetic. But he’s not a one-dimensional character and once he stops being seeming so evil, he becomes a fascinating character. His performance brilliantly contrasts that of Tang Wei. Lee has once again shown his flair for casting and his actors never fail to deliver.
The films is gorgeously shot, and deals with an aspect of the second world war that not many films have covered. Yet the period is recreated quite authentically (with the possible exception of an anachronistic taxi which I have found out did not appear in China until well after the war). The film did in fact on several occasions remind me of In The Mood For Love, although it’s not quite as good as that film. The sex scenes, the reason for the controversy surrounding the film, are quite graphic, but they’re not in the film purely as a matter of creating controversy. They punctuate the story quite well, and while starting off quite violent, they do take on a tenderness as the story develops. Hopefully, the film wont be remembered purely for these scenes, as it is an excellent espionage film. It’s a slow-burner for sure, but that’s all part of the story. An excellent film, and a great start to 2008.