09 October 2007


A director (Ang Lee) who I love, a lead actor (Tony Leung) who I adore, and a cinematographer who I worship (Rodrigo Prieto) working in one of my consistently favorite genres (WWII resistance thriller), and Lust, Caution has the temerity to be a bit of a washout? It's not just a disappointment, it feels like an outright betrayal.

I shouldn't be surprised, maybe; I first noticed four years ago that Lee has a strange curse whereby only every other film of his is great. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was followed by Hulk, The Ice Storm was followed by Ride with the Devil, and while Sense and Sensibility certainly isn't bad, it certainly isn't Eat Drink Man Woman, either. So I guess we should have expected that his follow-up to his best film, Brokeback Mountain, should end up so dissatisfying.

And not least because of how very much it does very well. The film opens (after a delightfully cryptic flash-forward) in Hong Kong, 1938, on a group of politically radical theater students, forming their very own resistance cell against the Japanese occupation of China. For their first action, they decide to assassinate Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), and to make that happen, the wide-eyed freshman Wong Jia-Zhi (Tang Wei) is disguised as the wife of a successful importer-exporter, thereby insinuating herself in the company of Yee's wife (Joan Chen).

So long as it dabbles in exposition, the film is great. Ang Lee is a great filmmaker if ever there was such a thing, and for the first time we get to see what he does when he gets his hands around a thriller. It is a good thing. The director (and his frequent collaborators, screenwriters James Schamus and Wang Hui-Ling) balances all sorts of layers effortlessly: the raw mechanic of plot, the satiric fun to be had at the expense of kids getting in over their heads, the political and cultural urgency of a story set during China's experience of the second world war, and a breathless genre piece.

Meanwhile, Tang Wai, in her film debut, owns the movie like she was born to it. The camera adores her face, especially given the way that Prieto shoots her like a 1940s Hollywood starlet (honestly, there's not much else to his work here that stands out. It's very solid, but lacks personality, and coming directly after the complicated but ineffective work he did on Babel, I begin to fear that he's losing his touch), and her performance negotiates the story's emotional twistiness perfectly.

Then the exposition turns into the plot, and, well...

At its core, here is what Lust, Caution is about: Mr. Yee becomes attracted to Wong, and just as he's about to cautiously act on his lust, he must flee to Shanghai. Cut to 1942: Wong is recruited by the real Resistance to finish the work she started four years earlier, and as she seduces Yee a second time, she finds to her horror that she's falling in love. Meanwhile, they have sex in scenes that fully justify the film's NC-17 rating, and are clearly not incidental, but are in some ways the emotional heart of the film, as two pent-up people trapped in an oh-so-formal society give way to their needs in guilty, angry explosions.

There's quite a lot of film going on around that, don't get me wrong: a film about the ways that Occidental influences have corrupted Chinese self-identity (something Lee doubtlessly has a valid perspective on), a film about the rigid formalism of Chinese life as embodied by the endless games of mah jongg the idle ladies play. The film's representation of Hong Kong and Shanghai during the war are triumphs of production design, and the plot clips along nicely when it has to, and slows down as naturally as possible.

But the sex scenes, and the love story that sparks them, simply don't work, and that's not a minor problem. That's the whole film done for, because everything about the film's structure implies that this relationship and its evolution is what matters (not to mention the director's insistence that removing the sex would leave the film meaningless). Even the title refers to the pas de deux between the two lovers.

The infamous sex scenes are amateurish. There, I've said it. Ang Lee isn't the first great filmmaker who simply doesn't know how to stage fucking and be convincing about it. The first scene works, and the first scene involves Yee raping Wong while they're both clothed, so it can be mostly ignored. The rest is all flailing limbs and gorgeously lit flesh and impossible mechanics. I could maybe forgive the number of shots in which the participants look like they'd just be flat-out uncomfortable - some positions take more dedication than others, after all - but there are a dismaying number of things that you just can't do, a la the pool scene in Showgirls (which had the excuse of not striving for eroticism): in one scene, I swear to God, it looks like Yee is trying to penetrate Wong's ankle.

As for the love story proper, it falls apart completely on the total lack of chemistry between the two leads. We know that Tony Leung can do romantic drama like nobody's business from In the Mood for Love, were he gets to play the male lead in one of the most erotic films in cinema history, without exposing one-twentieth of the naked flesh we see here. And as beautiful as Tang looks, and as well as she commands the camera, I can't imagine that she can't carry a love story. But chemistry, that's a total X-factor, and these actors, in this film, don't have it, and that's really bad, because their love story is pretty much the sole point of the film. You know what, I kind of respect Lee for making the film so dependent upon the actors like that, because it takes guts. You can be the greatest director with a great screenplay and a great crew, and if you let yourself make a movie that is completely and utterly dependent on the acting for its success, that's an act of faith and bravery, and sometimes it ends with something like Scenes from a Marriage, and sometimes it's exactly the opposite.

Perhaps the most bothersome part of all this is that it's the second film in a year with almost exactly the same concept: innocent girl joins the Resistance, seduces the enemy so effectively that she starts to fall in love with him, kinky sex ensues. And Paul Verhoeven's Black Book was erotic and thrilling where Lust, Caution is neither. So basically, I'm saying that Verhoeven is at least temporarily a better filmmaker than Ang Lee, and I'm not at all happy to live in a world where that's the case.



Will said...

You're such a tactical reviewer... you bring up Showgirls and we've all "did he really mention Paul Verhoeven in a review of an Ang Lee movie?" and then we trod along through a couple move paragraphs and BAM! There he is again, and we can't question it. Cagey, Mr. Brayton.

It devastates me to hear that you had so low an opinion of this film, because I left the theater having seen The Darjeeling Limited wishing for all the world that I'd seen this instead. Utter disappointment from two directors I tend to enjoy more in the same month would be too much. Luckily I can go see The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford instead, and by all accounts I'll not regret it.

Cameron said...

i stopped reading this review after the first paragraph. i shall continue after i've seen the thing... thus far, though, you're the only person who's voiced such an opinion. i hate to say it, but i hope you're wrong.

Anonymous said...

To Cameron,

I can assure you, yes he is wrong.

There is sth called lust which is in the title and THEME of the movie that is way darker and murkier than love. By saying those 2 have no chemistry is LUDACROUS. It's a misconception that this film is a thriller, it's an intense intricate super masterful study of human psychology. Whenever I saw those 2 on the screen together it was suffocatingly dense in a twisted attraction not desired by both of them.

Actually I find using words 'romance', 'erotic' a disgrace to the film. There was not supposed to be a romance between them, an erosive battle of tangled emotions was more accurate. They don't want to fall in love, who had the time and the peace of mind for that?! It has a boiling realism of the psyche of what's going on in the minds of people then. The constant bombardment of uncertainly and lost of cultural identity during the hopeless occupation while required to put on a show of calm, refined decadence in calamity. The movie is also honestly true the what really happend to the original author who married a traitor and a player. You can get a hint her sentiments towards her exhusband's alter ego Mr Yee is calculatedly cold and cynical but raw with unrelentingly emotions.

If you study the sex scenes carefully, you wont be interested in deciding on whether the limbs were put right or whether they ar amateurish. Every single flicker of emotions and unsettling shift of feelings were written all over their faces, esp their eyes. If you choose to miss them, it's totally your loss.

I have never seen pairs of eyes as masterfully commanding of complicated and multifaceted emotions as those of Tong Wei, Tony Leung (a given almost) and Joan Chan. IT's to a point they really don't need lines.
Again, if you care to pay attention.

Esp Tony Leung, in the movie, he's Mr. Yee who just happens to look like Tony Leung, but the stoic apathy shown in his cold eyes are definitely not Tony's, it's scary where that came from.

Cameron said...

i meant that no one i've talked to in person has felt the same way you did, tim... they all seem to like it. i've kind of stopped reading professional movie reviews, because they mostly spoil things.

Tim said...

Will: What the hell do I know? I enjoyed Darjeeling Limited. YMMV.

Cameron: Why should you hate to say that you hope I'm wrong? I hope you think I'm wrong - the one thing I hope never to be is an advocate for making people dislike movies. But if you haven't heard any negative opinions about the film, you're reading different critics than I. It's a pretty evenly split response, from what I see.

Anonymous: I certainly agree that Leung, Tang and Chen are all good individually, and I agree with your point about the loss of cultural identity. But I still don't feel anything at all between Leung and Tang. And while you may well be right that I was nitpicking the sex scenes, it shouldn't be my responsibility to "not care" if the scenes are plausible: I was distracted by the staging and I shouldn't have been.

Generally: It is more than likely that I wanted the film to be so good that I overreacted in my disappointment, but I can hardly be said to have gone in not wanting to love the film.

Jack said...

Probably only of interest to me, but I totally bought into Tim's conclusion that Ang Lee is cursed with every other film he makes. And I had high hopes that this movie would break the cycle. So I looked at reviews from FCS and IMDB, normalized them to 1 and plotted them as a function of year. Certainly the Hulk would bring a sawtoothyness to anyone's career, but there's a miss follows hit quality to Ang Lee's later career. He had a nice broad hump early on peaking around Sense and Sensibility (according to the numbers!). So I think it's just a function of Ang Lee becoming a more adventurous director in terms of the projects he chooses. But judge for yourselves: the plot

Tim, you seem to agree with the IMDB folks but are bucking the early trend of your FCS fellows. Go figure.

nate said...

Without reading a word, I'd like to point out my boss described this as Black Book directed by Ang Lee. YUCK.

Anonymous said...

It's an insult to compare this movie to Black book. Black book is a movie that is servicing the audience, giving you what u expect and wanted in this genre. Love, caution is another couple stratosphere above that and the other end of the spectrum. It's totally the audience's fault going in expect a film about what they know bout WWII...or the sex scenes.

Why would Mr. Lee specifically announced to the world that American audience with their American mentalities and sentiments will not be able to appreciate the film even before the 'critic's get a bite into tearin his masterpiece apart? He has lived in the States long enough and with his ultra sharp observant eye, he knew how confined they ar and how overtly arrogant they ar as if they own what defines movie/art.

Mr. Lee set off the made his own interpretation of a Chinese literary phenom, his own personal interpretation of Chinese history and sentiments and sensibilities.
And this movie is more than a phenomenon in his target audience, the Chinese. It's hailed rightfully so as Mr. Lee's best work in that part of the continent where they should have a way way better understanding and appreciation of their own history and culture....and isnt it laughable that some lofty critics uses his own ruler of whether he enjoys it or not to measure whether this is an entertaining movie?

Mr Lee has personally said that for the American audience this movie will be like 'playing music to the cows' a Chinese idiom, and he's sucha genius, this is so true.

The gentle, quiet Mr. Lee will be giving you ar subtle courteous grin and you will never know what is the hidden meaning of that...and it's not like he cares.

Cameron said...

jack, you're such a nerd. leave it to you to "normalize" imdb reviews and plot them as a function.

Tim said...

Jack, if I were physiologically capable of having your babies, I would offer to do so in this moment.

Cameron said...

this clearly illustrates the differences between me and tim, because i AM physiologically capable of having jack's babies, and do you see me offering to do so? no you do not.

what was this post about again?