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.