There are moments in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, in which a young woman goes under cover to seduce a Chinese traitor working for the Japanese government during WWII so that she and a group of other rebels can assassinate him, that recall one of my favorite films Notorious. Only now the actor with the presence of Cary Grant is playing the villain. And if Hitchcock were around today I don’t think he would have pulled any punches, as Ang Lee also has not here.
I remember watching a behind the scenes piece about the film Marnie and how scandalous it was for Sean Connery to rip off Tippy Hedron’s dress during what the writer (who was fired because he refused to write it) called a “rape” scene, though nothing by today’s standards happens. Hitchcock was always about pushing buttons, it was fortunate that his skill as a director always elevated the schlock to an art form. There certainly is a lot of skill put to use in Lust, Caution. It’s masterfully directed. The biggest problem is, and with a film that’s three hours long when you come to the conclusion and you’re really not sure who’s story it was or who you should have been rooting for on any level, even if it’s the villain which is fine, then what was that three hours supposed to mean. What was the importance of it? In Notorious it was a love story under the harshest of circumstances. In Marnie it was about healing the past. In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon it was about finding inner peace. You know whose story it is at all times. At the end of Lust, Caution since I really was never allowed to believe in what the brash students believed in, nor was I sympathetic to the villain played by an abrasive, empty eyed Tony Leung as Mr. Lee, one of the finest actors on our planet who snarled his way through this showing little of the charisma he’s brought to other roles, I was left emotionally vacant. You never really get to know him or what he does, so there’s little to fear. The main character, Wei Tang, was difficult to root for because she wasn’t driven by belief but by her need to love the male characters in her life, and that doesn’t root the story in a relevant emotional state either.
She decides to become a spy because of a crush on the leader of the college group of students, who is afraid to show his love because of the situations he continuously involves her in, in the hope of killing Mr. Lee. This leads to one of the most exhilaratingly brutal stabbing scenes probably put to screen since Psycho. But the chance to take Lee down is missed. 3 years later they are given a second chance. This is when the actual film suddenly begins, the rest is setup – an hour long set up. Though it doesn’t feel like Ang Lee is wasting our time, I think he could have given the audience the benefit of the doubt that we would be able to understand everything put to us in a shorter amount of time. So Tang infiltrates Lee’s household and heart and we’re forced to observe some of the more graphic sex scenes I seen put to screen. Many have commented that they aren’t sexy. What they fail to realize is that the sex being had in the film is an extension of the characters, and the characters, especially the alpha male Mr. Lee, are hardly sexy. He is a dark twisted soul and the sex they have becomes more and more violent as Tang inches her way deeper into the bowels of hell. But sex here is as misleading as it can be in real life. Whether it’s love or not, a psychological connection is created that Tang cannot separate herself from.
While I did not love the film as a whole, I loved elements of the film. As Tang finally is going to a fateful meeting with Mr. Lee a sort of Bernard Herman score kicks in and follows her to her car, and Ang Lee conducts the next sequence with such a steady hand that if the rest of the film had been handled so deftly it would have been an incredible experience.
Another thing that I really appreciated about Lust was that this was the first film I’ve seen in which I’ve completely understood the stress that going undercover can cause a person. The raping of a person’s identity and sometimes soul. I felt that slipping and tearing away as Tang struggles to not make a mistake. It was another element that reminded me of Notorious, one I’m glad influenced Ang Lee and his regular writer James Schamus.
It was an intriguing film, one I hope to revisit some day, and perhaps like more.