In Ang Lee’s sexy spy thriller, alliances and relationships are as fraught with peril as any war.
“What do we know about killing people? Our only experience is on stage.”
Director Ang Lee has had something of a varied career in his thirty-odd years of making films. I would say he’s primarily known as a director of dramas, mostly as his filmography skews in that direction, but everyone has a film of his they gravitate to and everyone I’ve asked picks something different. His history in working in so many genres, and reception ranging from Academy Award wins and critical praise to box office failure and audience ridicule means that it’s impossible to tell, going in fresh, just how one of his movies will hold up.
Based on the eponymous novella by Eileen Chang (and somewhat less so on real-life events surrounding Zheng Pingru’s failed attempt to assassinate Japanese collaborator Ding Mocun) Lust, Caution tells the story of shy university student Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei), who joins the school’s drama club, led by Kuang Yu Min (Wang Leehom). The group decide that patriotic plays aren’t enough to help with the Sino-Japanese war effort, and hatch a plan to assassinate Japanese sympathiser and recruiter Mr Yee (Tony Leung), by using Chia Chi to seduce him.
Told semi-linearly, the story of Lust, Caution is exactly what you’d expect from its title and delivers both nicely. Much of the heavy lifting here is done by Lee, Leung and Wei. Working together, they’re able to bring a sensual, dangerous air to the film. Lee’s direction drenches each scene with an abundance of atmosphere, ensuring that the audience is always immersed in the world, its politics and the treacherous undercurrents of living in this time of troubled allegiances and betrayal. In these movies ambience and mood are key, and Lee delivers. But what would it be without the two leads, both of whom share a classic look which lets them blend into the world seamlessly, as if they were always from the turn of the 20th century.
This was Wei’s first big movie role (and sadly, her last for a few years after the film garnered a tonne of controversy) and she absolutely kills it. Her character grows and changes a lot, and Wei delivers a staggeringly good performance as Chia Chi struggles with her naivety and her conflicted feelings towards Mr Yee. Tony Leung is reliably excellent as well, playing against his normal nice guy type. His natural charm remains unspoiled, but in the context of the story takes on a slightly more sinister tone.
Lust, Caution suffers from pacing issues in some places – it probably doesn’t need to be as long as it is nor drag as much in its opening act – but it is absolutely gripping throughout. The combination of Lee’s visual mastery, and Wei and Leung’s performances is one that draws you in and once all its pieces are in play the story grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go until its inevitable unhappy conclusion.
Verdict: Visually engrossing and excellently cast, Lust, Caution delivers on its titular promise by thrilling in more ways than one.
Overall entertainment: 8.5/10
Lust/Caution ratio: 1:3
Surprise casting: Joan Chen! I haven’t seen her since Twin Peaks!
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Lust, Caution (2007)
Also known as: 色，戒
Director: Ang Lee
Writers: Eileen Chang (novella), James Schamus, Hui-Ling Wang (screenplay)
Tang Wei – Wong Chia Chi
Tony Leung Chiu-Wai – Mr. Yee
Joan Chen – Mrs. Yee
Wang Leehom – Kuang Yumin
Tou Chung-hua – Old Wu
Chin Kar-lok – Assistant Officer Tsao
Chu Chih-ying – Lai Xiujin
Kao Ying-hsuan – Huang Lei
Lawrence Ko – Liang Junsheng
Johnson Yuen – Auyang Lingwen
Fan Kuang-yao – Secretary Chang
Anupam Kher – Hali Salahuddin
Shyam Pathak – Jewellery Shopkeeper
Akiko Takeshita – Japanese Tavern Boss Lady
Hayato Fujiki – Japanese Colonel Sato