Tuesday, October 09, 2007

"Lust, Caution" -- * * * 1/2

"Typical director... never listens to anyone else."

The above dialogue is uttered in Ang Lee's new film, "Lust, Caution" and the line could easily apply to Lee himself. A knack for being perpetually interesting and artful, even in his missteps, is the prime reason he's regarded as one of the finest filmmakers working (and working consistently too-- like Cronenberg, Spielberg and the Coen Brothers, his breaks between movies are never very long). He's also one of the most unpredictable filmmakers out there right now, hopping between martial arts films, quiet family dramas, superhero movies and western-themed tragedies. Considering his versatility, it's questionable whether Lee even has a particular style to his filmmaking that one can nail down, or qualities that one could watch and immediately identify as his.

"Lust," his enthralling latest, serves best as a companion piece to "Brokeback Mountain" in sheer terms of tone, pacing and themes. Those who found that masterpiece boring should most definitely sit this one out, since it's even more methodically paced, as well as a half hour longer. However, in a season of perpetually looooong movies, it's worth pointing out that the intellectual stimulation will make up for what hardships your butt may withstand. At two hours and forty minutes, "Lust, Caution's" buildup is long (one could argue too long), but the payoff of conflicting morality and consequences wouldn't have anywhere near the power it does without it.

Beginning in 1942 in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, the film's first sequence centers on an extended mahjong game that's real significance will only be revealed later on. The seemingly rich and sophisticated Mrs. Mak (Tang Wei), is playing among an elite social circle before exiting to a coffee shop to make an important phone call. It's here we flashback to four years previous, where we discover Mrs. Mak is really Wong Chia Chi, a college student who becomes a part of a political acting troupe inspired by a boy she has a crush on, Kuang (Wang Leehom). Wong quickly becomes the group's leading lady, able to move and inspire both audience members and the troupe itself.

After deciding that acting "can't compare with eliminating a flesh and blood traitor," Kuang hatches a plan to use their skills to assassinate highly placed Japanese collaborator, Mr. Yee (an excellent Tony Leung). Wong ends up being the central figure in said scheme, infiltrating herself the social circle of Yee's wife (Joan Chen) and eventually, becoming embroiled in an affair with Yee himself. As Wong's feelings for Mr. Yee begin to merge with her mission, the film's primary tension derives from if, how and when the assassination will take place.

It's telling that the film opens with a mahjong game considering how much of the running time is occupied by them, and how important they are. While nothing substantial is discussed during them (the dialogue is relatively superficial), they speak worlds about the characters, what's going on underneath, and social hierarchy. I wouldn't necessary advise it, but one wouldn't be misguided to not even bother reading the subtitles for these scenes and just looking at the actors' eyes.

The extremely similar plots have understandably brought comparison to Paul Verhoeven's lurid "Black Book," but while that film was more relentlessly entertaining/ludicrous/lowbrow, "Lust, Caution" is significantly more affecting, emotionally complex and a more satisfying whole. In other words, if you prefer a bucket of shit dumped on your main character rather than unrequited emotion and vague moral implications, Verhoeven's is the one to go with. As always, Lee goes for the subtle or understated, and delving into the meaning underneath things; Verhoeven's style has its fans, I'm just not one of them.

Even if it's not the most fast-moving affair, "Lust" is consistently glorious-looking, and the period detail is exquisite. Technically the film is a marvel, and the screenplay (co-written by Focus Features head James Schamus) makes for a perfect pairing of material and filmmaker. As someone who never read the Eileen Chang short story it's based on, I was taken off-guard by the directions it went, and the little details in the storytelling linger as much as the grand moments. However, while small moments like Wong applying perfume behind her ears and weeping while watching "Intermezzo" stay with you, the film's final chain of events is the sort of haunting filmmaking you're unable to get out of your head.

It's impossible to talk about the film without bringing up what's given it 95% of its publicity: the sex scenes which resulted in earning the movie an NC-17 rating. They're extremely graphic, hot, and for the most part, necessary. They're important for the characters, considering the only times they're not putting on some sort of face for the other is during them (or at least during the later ones). From the first one, which is a sort-of consensual rape that closes with an ambiguous smile, to the last, which is significantly more sensual, they also perfectly show the progression of Yee and Wong's relationship. Without them, we'd never have a complete understanding of what goes on between them. And at the risk of sounding naive and immature, these things do not look staged; I swear I saw penetration at one point, though I can't be certain.

Tang Wei gives one of the best performances by an actress this year as Wong; it's a truly brave, breathtaking debut performance, and it really deserves recognition come year's end. She convincingly pulls off an astonishing character transformation, and she manages to be hugely emotionally affecting while being remarkably subtle. As the film goes on, we're not always sure about how we feel about character, so it's a credit to her stunning performance that we always feel involved and caught up with how she'll end up.

"Lust, Caution" is a film that requires patience from its audience, but those who can withstand its pacing will find it fits comfortably into Lee's increasingly impressive filmography. Emotionally and morally complex, wonderfully performed, and always beautiful to look at (and listen to), it's one any serious filmgoer really doesn't have a right to miss it.

"Lust, Caution" is now playing in New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago and expands to additional cities this Friday and slowly throughout October and November.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Best Actress (Tang Wei), Best Score, Best Cinematography


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I sincerely hope I get to see this movie while still in theaters. I purchased the Alexandre Desplat score--and while not his greatest work, I still feel compelled to have hott sex with his musical ear. I wonder if he'll net an Oscar nom this year for either "Lust" or "Compass"...


7:39 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home