Friday, January 04, 2008

LUST, CAUTION/SE, JIE - beautiful tragedy but less substantial than BROKEBACK

Pantheon director Ang Lee's new film LUST, CAUTION is a beautiful, erotic thriller set in war-threatened Hong Kong in 1938 and Japanese-occupied Shanghai in 1941. A student activist leads his amateur dramatics group in a plot to assassinate a high-level collaborator, Mr Yee. The group transforms a shy actress, Wong Chia Chi, into a sophisticated honey-trap called Mrs Mak. The movie unfolds at a leisurely pace, with Rodrigo Prieto's camera lingering over the luxuriant recreation of pre-occupation Hong Kong and war-torn Shanghai. The camera also lingers over the student leader Kuang as he gazes with admiration upon his creation. Wong Chia Chi slips easily enough into her new role. She takes a cigarette against her better judgement because she is told that is what actresses do. Almost as easily, she resigns herself to losing her virginity to a man she doesn't love, because that will make her experienced enough to deal with Mr Yee. The first hour of the movie slips by very quickly. Mr Yee falls for Mrs Mak, but it too cautious to act upon his lust. And then, all of a sudden Mr and Mrs Yee leave Hong Kong for Shanghai, and the plan has apparently come to nothing. Wong Chia Chi has sacrificed her virginity - and the students their political innocence - for nothing. Three years later and a mournful Wong Chia Chi is in occupied Shanghai. The resistance take her up as a means to get to Mr Yee once more. The relationship is facilitated easily enough but this only brings more problems. Mrs Mak has successfully broken Mr Yee's resistance, but he has also broken hers. They use each other completely in sex scenes that are depicted graphically and, I think, necessarily. As in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, two people have found a certain freedom with each other away from the strictures of social pressures and political risk. When Wong Chia Chi graphically describes her relationship with Mr Yee to an embarassed resistance leader, she is forcing him to confront the emotional danger she is. All of which leads to the ultimate question: will Mrs Mak and Mr Yee have the strength to betray each other - as their political roles require.

Ang Lee has crafted a beautiful movie of long lingering looks that lead to passionately expressed desires. The production is sterling. But, unlike BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, I think that the substance of the film - the dilemma at its heart - is insufficient to sustain the run-time and the weight of expectation generated by the slow build-up to the final act. Wei Tang certainly gives a subtle and convincing performance as Wong Chia Chi/Mrs Mak, but I've seen Tony Leung give more memorable performances - not least in IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. He also starred in INFERNAL AFFAIRS, which I thought better handled the issue of finding truth and forging relationships when under-cover.

LUST, CAUTION is a beautiful, tragic film and certainly worth watching. But the central relationship didn't capture my imagination and I certainly felt a little short-changed when I left the cinema. Would LUST, CAUTION have changed my Best Of 2007 had I seen it last year? Probably not.

LUST, CAUTION played Venice, where Ang Lee won the Golden Lion and Director of Photography, Rodrigo Prieto, won the Golden Osella. LUST, CAUTON also played Toronto, London and Vienna 2007. It was released in Taiwan, Hong Kong, the US, Singapore, Germany, the Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea, China, Turkey, Greece, Russia, Thailand and Spain in 2007. It is currently on release in the UK and Italy and opens in France, Australia, the Czech Republic, Iceland, Poland, the Netherlands and Belgium later in January. It opens in Denmark, Sweden, Argentina, Finland and Norway in February.

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