September 27, 2007

Lust, Caution

Directed by Ang Lee Starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Ang Lee made history in becoming the first Asian director to receive an Oscar – Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu and Edward Yang are still rolling over in their graves at that one – but he has retreated from Hollywood to make Lust, Caution, a WWII espionage tale set in China. Considering that Lust, Caution is rated NC-17, it’s obvious that Lee is attempting to lower expectations after the enormous success of Brokeback Mountain rather than simply returning to his roots. Based on Eileen Chang’s short story, the new film is actually similar to Brokeback in that it manifests Lee’s ability to stretch a novella to a meandering two-hour-plus epic.

In Japanese-occupied Shanghai, a group of college students led by the idealistic Kuang Yu-min (Taiwanese American pop star Wang Leehom) tries to do its part in the resistance by putting on patriotic plays. Fueled by early success, the group grows more ambitious and hatches a plot to assassinate Japanese collaborator Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-wai). The troupe’s leading lady Wang Jiazhi (newcomer Tang Wei) transforms herself into Mrs. Mak, infiltrates the social circle of Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen) and begins a dangerous liaison with Mr. Yee.

In other words, Wang Jiazhi is Suzie Wong in the guise of the Dragon Lady. It’s no surprise that Lee would again exploit Chinese culture for Western consumption as he did with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and his Father Knows Best trilogy (Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman). But at least in his previous “Chinese” films, he never resorted to such worn-out caricatures as the demure Asian woman and the chauvinist Asian man (as embodied by Mr. Yee).

Lust, Caution is like the Chinese remake of Black Book, in which a Jewish heroine goes undercover in Nazi headquarters and carries on an affair with an SS officer. Unfortunately Lee isn’t a shamelessly shrewd filmmaker like Paul Verhoeven, and Lust, Caution comes off as ponderously dull in spite of all the graphic sex scenes that earned the film an NC-17. It’s no small irony that Verhoeven managed to get away with all the sexual innuendo and frontal nudity with merely an R rating and still ended up with a far superior movie. Since the Chinese WWII espionage film doesn’t measure up to its Dutch counterpart, let’s just hope Survivor: China won’t similarly turn out to be more lethargic than its other editions.

© Copyright 2007 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.