Halfway through Lust, Caution, Ang Lee
's follow-up to Brokeback Mountain, Mr. Yee, a collaborator with the Japanese in WWII Shanghai, throws the flirtatious wife of a businessman onto a bed and proceeds to have sex with her, precariously straddling the fence between rough sex and rape. Mr. Yee (the inimitable Tony Leung
) and the woman, Wang (Tang Wei
), will go on to have a dark and detailed set of trysts, each more carnal and sweatier than the last. Lee's camera doesn't show a hint of timidity as it sways around every curve and canal of each lover's body, at times so penetrating that one wonders if Lee's precursor was Michael Winterbottom's Nine Songs. It's not Ledger spitting in his hand before he gives it to Gyllenhaal, but it's not far off.
But before we ever get to see these thrashing entanglements, we are plummeted into the early rumblings of the Chinese resistance to the Japanese occupation. Little does Yee know that the woman he is tossing around the bedroom would love nothing more than to feel his blood splatter all over her in the middle of one of their sessions. See, Wang was once a schoolgirl with aspirations in acting, sparked by collegiate cutie Kuang (Wang Leehom
), a director who wrote (terrible) plays about the damages of the war and subsequent occupation on the normal Chinese family. While discussing politics in a theater balcony, Kuang and his actors turned from thespians into resistance fighters, planning the assassination of the traitorous Yee. Article continues below
The aforementioned moment of volatile sexuality invigorates the psychology and the characters, but the film still plays with placid intrigue for over two and a half hours and never pinches like Lee's best work (The Ice Storm, Brokeback). Though composed beautifully by Lee and ingenious cinematographer Rodrigo Pierto, the foreboding sense of hesitancy never passes from the film's veneer, making Lee's forbearers look all the better. Lee has seemingly spliced the plot of Paul Verhoeven's Black Book, a work of perverse genius, with the style of fellow countryman Wong Kar-wai, constantly focusing on the feminine dress and the slow drip of bad romance. Consequently, Lust comes off as a stunted clone; fascinating and watchable but (surprisingly) without the boldness and vision of those that have influence it.
As the title infers, lust indeed trumps caution time after time, and the slow dance that takes them from acquaintances to lovers spans years and even endures Wang's eventual absence from the resistance. Though not without its moments of brilliance, the film lacks a true interest in the time period's politics; the fašade of the era is masterful but is never completely realized. However, Lee's agenda seems less directed towards caustic politics and closer to a male vs. female tango of sexual dominance. Wang and Yee both drop their cautious behavior to indulge in these lustful bedroom retreats but not much happens when one of them lets their guard down. More a holding pattern than a misstep, Lust, Caution shows that Lee continues to be fueled by gleeful intrigue. It's not enough: If you're going to play with taboo, you better be ready to break the damn thing.