Lust, Caution is the latest from my old nemesis Ang Lee, a filmmaker who everyone else seems to be ready to lube up and use as directed, but I can’t seem to get excited about. Because of that, this review comes with a disclaimer: I’m one of the two people on the planet who hated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I think Brokeback Mountain is all issue hype and no substance, and I liked Hulk… the only Ang Lee movie everyone else seems to hate. Clearly there’s something wrong with me.
For Lust, Caution Lee returns to Chinese language filmmaking with a story set in World War II era China. The film jumps between time periods, taking place both shortly before and then after the Japanese occupation of the country. It follows a young college girl named Wang, who joins a theater troop full of students eager to support their country against the attacking Japanese. At first they do it by putting on patriotic plays, but it’s not long before they decide to take their patriotism too far, and plot to murder Mr. Yee, a Chinese official suspected of colluding with the enemy.
Wang is instrumental to their plot and uses her acting skills to infiltrate Mr. Yee’s household and later into taking her as a mistress. The film seems mostly to be about her loss of innocence, as a wide eyed school girl is sucked into a dark game and forced to become something she’s not. It’s a long and ultimately unrewarding tale, Wang and her group are only marginally sympathetic, remote characters. Much more interesting is the character of Mr. Yee, a real villain in every sense of the word, yet at the same time one that’s completely and utterly human. Tony Leung gives a brilliant performance as Yee, and if there’s one bright spot in this snoozer it’s him.
It’s the distance between the audience and Wang that really drags the movie down. It’s obvious from the movie’s warm, vaguely erotic color palate that Lee is trying to create something seductive, and in fact the movie is rated NC-17 almost entirely for sexuality. But for a movie which seems to want to be about sex the vast majority of it is spent watching boring people in period costumes playing mahjong. What sexuality there is ends up being confined solely to the middle of the film and not all that important to the movie. It’s almost gratuitous and could have easily been edited down to an R without losing anything of value. There’s no good reason for Lust, Caution to be NC-17 and they’ve sort of shot themselves in the foot by releasing it as is, since NC-17 movies usually get only very limited American distribution.
Not mind you, that anyone would want to see it even if it were more widely distributed. The movie’s long and lifeless, with no real payoff. Should you make it through the entire thing you’ll be punished for it, since Ang delivers a ludicrous, nearly inexplicable ending. I’m sure critics will praise it; lengthy, languishing, pointless foreign language films usually get good reviews and doubly so if that foreign language film has Ang Lee’s name attached to it. But unless you’re looking for something to replace your Ambien prescription, skip it.