Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution is supposedly an espionage thriller but that is very much a misnomer. Mainly because it is only ever intermittently thrilling and it paints the picture of a different movie altogether. Espionage elements aside, Lee’s film is a mostly lifeless bore of a movie that limps to a conclusion .
Based on the novella by Eileen Chang, adapted into screenplay form by James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang, Lee’s film sets itself in Hong Kong and Shanghai circa 1938 and 1942 respectively, amidst the Japanese occupation during WWII. Wei Tang plays a young drama student pulled in by her classmates into a daring assassination plot against a Japanese collaborator (played by Tony Leung). She picks up a fake identity and ingratiates herself into his life and eventually becomes her mistress. The film follows our young heroine as she puts herself completely into her role and then begins to fall in love with the man she is supposed to set up for murder.
This film was an incredible disappointment to me as I really enjoy Ang Lee’s work. The characters are lifeless and dull. The film is of such a singular simple premise and focus that it becomes a chore to sit through the entire two and half hour run time without any character to feel latched on to. There are intermittent scenes of suspense and some solid performances that keep certain stretches afloat, but nothing that keeps the viewer involved in the story.
It’s a beautifully composed film that sheds light on a place during World War II that wasn’t completely familiar to me. It’s a wonderful sense of place that Lee creates here and it’s the film’s defining characteristic that really made it felt somewhat worthwhile. Unfortunately, the characters are such bores and stretch any kind of reality that it’s hard to sit and watch.
There are aspects of this film that reminded me of the great Alfred Hitchcock film Notorious, most notably the latter half of the movie when Tang is asked to resume her relationship with Leung’s Mr. Yee. The man asking her to do this is the fiery, attractive classmate that convinced her to go along with the plot in the first place, who as the audience can tell from glances and brief cut-aways, share intimate feelings with each other. That is where the similarities end, both in narrative and quality. While Hitchcock built the relationship between the handler and the spy, the film focuses on the spy and her target. Here the film could have found interesting ways of discovering this relationship and showing the effects on the handler as well, but Lee doesn’t seem to care for this aspect of the story.
In that sense, there is a Hitchcock feel to the building of suspense in certain scenes, but whereas Hitchock would pay things off and build interesting character relationships so well, Lee lets things simmer and eventually die, including audience interest. The relationships are scarcely given attention to and there is barely any character momentum to lead to character actions that lead to its conclusion. Lee seems to feel that the explicit, NC-17 sex scenes are enough to show how much in love they have fallen, but there is little follow up. The characters never feel real and it hurts the central relationships that are supposed to drive the story forward. The characters are so cold and frigid toward each other that one wonders if this was a purposeful choice by Lee and that, if it was, that he’s gone too far in that direction to give the audience absolutely no feeling towards any of the characters.
The performances are quite good but they are given so little and feel so misused, that it’s hard to find any moments where they are given to shine, with very few exceptions. The students that originally set out on this assassination plot are given just the barest hints of character development and seem to be brought in towards the end of the film just to show that, yes, they are still around.
The film’s greatest enemy is its pacing which utterly kills any momentum that might have been able to garner any interest. The last half hour or so, things actually begin to ratchet up but it’s too little that comes far too late. There is far too little in an otherwise overlong, over-dull, attempt at Hitchockian and romantic intrigue. The entire endeavor falls flat and its too bad because the story given is quite good. Within this unruly bore, is a good film waiting to burst out but unfortunately, Lee was unable to bring that sense of emotion and unruly passion that made Brokeback Mountain such an amazing work.