“I have a mission”
I can’t stand American film distributors and how they handle foreign films. With their money-scheming minds, they give us movie trailers without any dialogue, trying their best to disguise the fact that the work is not in English. If they don’t let us hear a strange language or show a single subtitle, people may just think that it was a minimal piece meant to strike our senses. Unfortunately, for someone like me, I know before seeing the trailer that it is a foreign film—I’ve probably been following its development. With that said, I still like to be as fresh as possible when coming in, so I only try to allow myself plot knowledge from the trailers instead of a synopsis or spoiler. However, these misguided previews don’t give us any insight to the film itself. I can’t think of a more prevalent example then Ang Lee’s new piece 色, 戒 [Lust, Caution]. I was anticipating a tale of romance and seduction between an older man and his mistress within Japanese occupied China. Wow, was that not even close. True those aspects are there, but the real story is so much more involved, stimulating, and unexpected.
After following his last Chinese language film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with two English language works, it is nice to see Lee go back to his native tongue. I enjoyed both Hulk and Brokeback Mountain for what they were, but neither touched his martial arts epic in terms of scope or success. When hearing about Lust, Caution, I was very much excited to see what he would do with it. Looking more like a Wong Kar Wai movie, (not sure I have the credibility to make that statement seeing as I’ve only seen the gorgeous In the Mood For Love), I was hoping to get a sense of the character pieces he had done early in his career that I have not yet been able to view.
If there is one thing that stays consistent through the works I have seen, it is his wonderful use of cinematography. With cameraman Rodrigo Prieto, (a man who has filmed works by favorites of mine Iñárritu and Cuarón), behind the lens, one could not expect less. After working with Lee on Brokeback Mountain, he once again shoots some stunning work. The framing is always perfect, many scenes use mirrors and glass to keep all the action onscreen simultaneously, and the sexual encounters are displayed with the right amount of care and brutality necessary to get the point across on what is happening. This is one sticking point that has been gaining a lot of press around the movie. Does it deserve the NC-17 rating here in the US? Maybe. Nothing is more graphic than say HBO’s new series “Tell Me You Love Me,” yet it is more integral to the story. Many of the instances are pretty much rape, and that is something one should know going into it, in case it will deter your wanting to view the movie. However, the overall impact of what happens would not be even close to what it is had those moments been excised or edited. The sex between our two leads is the bond that connects them beyond the jobs they are doing. That physicality is what makes the final third of the film as heartbreaking as it is.
As I said before, though, Lust, Caution is not about the love affair been characters played by the great Tony Leung and startling newcomer Wei Tang. What we really have set before us is a tale of revolution, espionage, and maturing within the confines of a world at war. Tang is just a kid who finds herself the new star actress at her school. The theatre troupe she works with decides that they should do what they can for the resistance, which they are unable to fight in. After its director, played nicely by Lee-Hom Wang, has a chance encounter with an old friend, the troupe gets to the cusp of a dangerous situation. They soon find themselves way over their heads, trying to orchestrate an assassination of a Chinese man working with the Japanese as a traitor to his country. When the event that shows the culmination of their age and inexperience plays out, it is both unexpected and unavoidable. Either way, though, they have embedded themselves into the guerilla war and eventually find that they had no chance to turn back. Meeting four years previous to the film’s conclusion at the back of their college theatre sealed their futures.
While at its core we are given a story very similar to last year’s foreign sensation of espionage, The Lives of Others, it is shown very differently. Lee allows the story breathing room to ferment and go its course. Each “spy” grows up so much during the four year span of the film. Between the main two, Tang and Wang, along with Leung’s traitorous, political general, the evolution of each is shown in its entirety. All three’s motivations are clearly laid out and during the almost three hour runtime, the audience cannot become lost because they are shown absolutely everything. So, rather than build extreme tension between two people, like in the German film, Lee allows for a slow construction of backstory and relationship with all involved. All our principals grow together or apart based on what they allow themselves to do for the “good of their nation.”
No matter how good the story itself, the film would be nothing without its magnificent acting. Wang is great, as is Joan Chen with whom it was a pleasure to see play a role in Chinese as I have only ever seen her in “Twin Peaks”. However, it is Tang and Leung that carry the movie. With so many moments of silent expression between them and some tough to stomach scenes in bed, these two amaze. The emotions are always prevalent and the decisions they make never stray from character. Yes, their relationship is unconventional, but the bond they forge cannot be taken lightly. While the middle portion might seem a bit long and monotonous to a point, the finale is a feat of genius. From Tang and Wang’s final look into each other’s eyes and Leung’s reaction to the clock’s strike of ten, all you can think is how Lee let this story be told as it should. Holding nothing back and being unafraid whether he threw convention out the window, there is no way a movie like this would ever have been made in Hollywood. So, I guess while I chided the industry for their almost suicidal handling of foreign films, I do need to give them some credit for still letting us Americans, who don’t mind reading subtitles, view them in their unedited glory. (Well at least some times, if this was a no name director and not Lee, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the producers changed the ending and shaved an hour off.)
色, 戒 [Lust, Caution] 8/10 | ★ ★ ★
Tang Wei (right) and Tony Leung (left) star in Ang Lee’s LUST, CAUTION, a Focus Features release. Photo: Chan Kam Chuen