Directed by Ang Lee. Starring Tony Leung, Tang Wei, and Joan Chen. Rated 18A. Opens Friday, October 12, at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas
From the key party in The Ice Storm to the first, savage tent encounter in Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee's best films often pack a shattering surprise a sexually, emotionally shocking change in tone. Never has the approach been so obvious as in Lust, Caution, the director's first Chinese-language offering since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It's a movie that, actually, puts caution before lust, playing it safe for an eternity before suddenly switching into the uncharted territory of abandoned sex.
Set in wartime Shanghai and Hong Kong and with intricate story lines about spies and resistance, Lust, Caution on one level seems to aspire to be a Chinese Casablanca. In pre Second World War Hong Kong, an idealistic student theatre troupe hatches a plot to kill a heavily guarded Japanese collaborator, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) while he's visiting from the mainland. Tang Wei plays a young actor, Wang Jiazhi, who turns into a seductress, pulling off a stunning transformation in the process: her shy, plain student morphs into a beguiling femme fatale with scarlet rosebud lips, finger-waved hair, and perfectly tilted hats. The students get in dangerously over their heads, forcing Wang again to try to lure Yee three years later, this time in the Japanese-occupied Shanghai of 1942.
Much of the setup makes for an intriguing history lesson. Lee has painstakingly re-created old Shanghai, which clung to its colonial past of tearooms and rickshaws even as the brutal Japanese occupation brought ration lineups and abandoned corpses to its streets. But he spends too long establishing the context. When the student propagandists aren't endlessly fooling around, Yee's wife (Joan Chen) is gossiping over the mahjong table in the residential compound of the Chinese collaboration government.
The light meandering's only purpose is to make the audience more likely to be caught off guard when things turn dark and intimate. Yee and Wang's affair begins as a dance of deception, then devolves into a cruel exercise in self-loathing and survival. But then, somewhere amid all the thrusting pelvises and tangled limbs, their relationship edges toward truth: for two people who are forced to wear multiple masks, sex strips them naked literally and figuratively.
Lust, Caution is so fraught with twisted allegiances that its messages are never simple. Leung is particularly enigmatic as the sinister yet smouldering Yee, a sadist who's sensitive enough to admit he's a "whore". The political and the personal reasons that intertwine these two are often disturbing, but it's that unexpected complexity that allows this movie, like so many of Lee's other works, to worm its way into your head, despite its flaws.