A review of “Lust, Caution” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: NC-17 for graphic sexuality and violence

Run Time: 2 hours, 38 minutes. In Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese with English subtitles

 

 

          Ang Lee manipulates a mood to heady effect in this atmospheric historical romance.

          Much has been made of the film’s NC-17 rating and the sex is undoubtedly steamy. But there’s far more caution than lust as carnal appetites aren’t satisfied until the last act.

          While we’re (impatiently) waiting Lee carefully crafts a hushed political mystery set in WWII Shanghai, where an amateur acting troupe stages an idealistic coup against Secret Service Japanese collaborator Mr. Yee (Chinese superstar Tony Leung).

          Reluctantly leading the charge is youthful ingénue cum resistance fighter Wang Chia Chi (Tang Wei) who is summarily trained in the art of seduction in order to gain Yee’s confidence and guide him down the path to a fatal finish.

          Best laid plans go seriously awry when Yee abruptly slips from their grasp and the troupe’s radical scheme is exposed, resulting in a grisly murder. The group disbands and Chia Chi is sent to the country to toil away in obscurity.

          Several years later the fickle fingers of fate reach out to Chia Chi when she encounters an ex troupe member who informs her that Yee has returned to Shanghai. Chia Chi finagles her way back into his orbit and rekindles their liaison, falling desperately in love – or at least lust – as the couple beds with sadistic abandon (leaving nothing to the imagination).

          Lee shoots his full-front affair with little or no inhibition; snaps to him for going for it without concern for MPAA ratings or prurient sensibilities. Unfortunately even the film’s most explicit pleasures can’t overcome the tightly warped social fabric and some stodgy pacing.

          The atmosphere is charged throughout with the lush, temperamental imagery of wartime Shanghai, Leung’s coolly cunning performance and Tang’s ethereal poise. Provocative politics pervade the proceedings with dramatic emphasis on unyielding party loyalties and Japanese occupied oppression.

Lee has gone back to his roots and the results are undeniably intriguing.