Writers: Kelly Sane
Cinematographer: Rodrigo Prieto
Starring: Tony Leung, Wei Tang, Joan Chen
Studio/Run Time: Focus Features, 148 mins.
Most notable directors have a distinct style that will immediately peg their work; a way of moving the camera or focusing on a facial feature, the use of music or color. Ang Lee, even in his high-flying moments (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), often prefers the invisible style of old Hollywood. But with this WWII epic he has taken that mode to extremes. The editor's work is invisible, yes, but so too is almost every trace of emotion, as well as the sensations of danger and lust.
It's difficult to estimate why Lee allows the James Schamus/Hui-Ling Wang script to play so large. Perhaps his grand backdrop is distracting - the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong and Shanghai during the 1940's. But the story, of a Chinese girl (Wei Tang) seducing a Japanese collaborator (Tony Leung) in order to assassinate him for the resistance, should be intimate. If the plot sounds familiar, you’re probably a Paul Verhoeven fan; last year, his Black Book presented a nearly identical narrative.
But where Black Book is a sort of grand guignol, this is a delicate chamber piece. Stately in pace and dry as porcelain, Lee dotes over the mahjongg games of wartime housewives and lets his camera roam wide to capture impeccably detailed recreations of streets and parlors, though he lingers longer on the well-maintained shopping avenues of society than the ravages of war.
Newcomer Wei Tang is simply glorious as Lee's heroine, able to be girlish and worldly, composed and shattered with equal fidelity. Watching her melt the immovable expressions of Tony Leung should be a delirious pleasure. But despite the much-vaunted NC17-worthy sexual content, during which Lee captures a range of human entanglement that is beyond most cinema, their courtship holds as much flavor as the dry bread we see lines of citizens queuing up for on Hong Kong streets. When, after one scene of rather rough sexuality, Wei Tang breaks into a small smile, the screen could positively shatter at the rare display of honest feeling.
Lee's interests have always leaned towards the feminine, specifically with respect to tales of repressed women. That might explain why he dallies so frequently with a trio of bored wives (including Joan Chen) and avoids engaging the passions of his nominal leads, not to mention the simmering desire and resentment between Wei Tang and her primary resistance contact. In doing so, Lee has bound Lust, Caution as tightly as any woman in his oeuvre, but absolutely nothing in this movie's 157-minute running time allows this work of art to truly break free.