Published at: Oct. 5, 2007, 3:10 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
I can honestly say that I’ve been a fan of Ang Lee’s work since his first film in 1992. PUSHING HANDS was a warm, human little film that blended social commentary, martial arts, and family comedy with a deft touch. Obviously a big part of the success of that film was the screenplay by James Schamus, and to some extent, if you’re a fan of Lee’s work, you are also a fan of Schamus. The two of them have enjoyed a fairly amazing collaboration over the last fifteen years, working in artistic harmony to create a diverse run of movies that include THE WEDDING BANQUET, EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN, THE ICE STORM, RIDE WITH THE DEVIL, CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON, and the much-maligned HULK. It’s one of those weird flukes that Ang Lee finally won his Oscar for Best Director, it was for one of the few films of his that Schamus did not write.
Today’s limited release of LUST, CAUTION sees the two of them reunited, and the result is a somber, fascinating movie that could easily be seen as an Asian counterpart to Verhoeven’s BLACK BOOK last year. Adapted from the novella by Eileen Chang, this is the story of a group of students in WWII-era Shanghai who decide to use their theatrical training to assassinate a high-ranking enemy collaborator. Tony Leung, one of the greatest movie stars working in the Chinese film industry today, plays Mr. Yee, the government official who the students target, while newcomer Wei Tang makes a devastating debut as Wang Jiazhi, the student who is the key to the entire plan. As one might guess from the film’s NC-17 rating, they set a honey trap for Mr. Yee, a simple-enough plan that becomes complicated when reality and pretend become confused.
Chang’s original story is a spare, affecting piece of work that is notable for the precision of its language and for the attention to detail. Little surprise she gets everything right since much of this was drawn from her real life. She was a student in Hong Kong when the Pacific war began, forcing her to move back to Shanghai. She married a man who served in the collaborationist government who ended up having an affair and abandoning her, which freed her up to flee back to Hong Kong and, eventually, to America, where she published most of her work.
Just reading the Chang story, you can see why Ang Lee would be drawn to it as source material. Thanks to the textured writing and the sophisticated understanding Chang had of politics both national and personal at the time, this slight story seems rich with subtext. At heart, this appears to be a story about what happens to you over time when you play a role for so long, so completely. At what point do your experiences become real? They’re happening to you... to the character you’re playing... but that doesn’t make them any less real. Wei Tang is quietly affecting in every scene of the film, but her work has a cumulative effect that I found sort of devastating. She makes the choices that most profoundly affect her with a sort of reckless abandon, but once she makes the choice, she lives with it. It’s impossible to say who sacrifices the most for the cause that they’ve chosen out of all the students, but Wang Jiazhi vanishes into the role she’s playing, this importer’s wife with black market connections. She lives rich, wearing the best of everything, insinuating herself into the confidence of Mr. Yee’s wife and her circle of friends. They all meet over mah-jongg, and those scenes are wonderfully played, much of it right out of Chang’s novella, this savage circle of sharp-tongued gossips all married to powerful men, all trading all the secrets they know as currency over their game. One of the reasons the film runs 2 hours 40 minutes is because Lee allows these observational scenes play out. I think he does that really well in all his films… setting up sequences that are all about behavior, all character. It’s sort of the cinematic equivalent to what Tom Wolfe was doing in BONFIRE or what Scorsese’s doing in AGE OF INNOCENCE. It’s that sort of societal anthropology, showing what happens to lives that get caught up in these larger social forces. It could only happen at the exact moment the story is set... it’s the result of social friction finally causing a spark.
And, oh, what a spark. Tony Leung and Wei Tang join that list of provocateurs over the years in film who push the sexual mainstream envelope, like Brando and Schneider or Rourke and Basinger or Sutherland and Christie. It reminded me a lot of the way Phil Kaufman shoots his sex scenes in UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS and HENRY & JUNE. It’s not graphic... but it’s explicit. It’s about the way these people share intimacy. If you don’t see these moments... if you aren’t right there between them... then you don’t understand the big moment in the movie.
No, I’m not going to spoil it. I’ll just say that there’s a reason LUST CAUTION has always sparked debate regarding this one thing that Wang Chia-chih does. Actually, you could debate whether it’s Wang Chia-chih who does it or if it’s Mai Tai-tai, the role she’s been playing. The results are drastic, inevitable, but is there really any other choice she could have made in that moment? She is transformed by what she’s been playing. The thing I find even more provocative is what the movie says about Mr. Yee. Leung’s work here is exceptional, and in the film’s final moments, I think he does some of his best work. Ever. It’s his REMAINS OF THE DAY, the film where he gets to play internal and guarded and yet, somehow, split wide open in almost every moment onscreen. Mr. Yee is a bundle of longing, a raw nerve of suppressed desire. And the way he handles this collision with Mai Tai-Tai defines who he truly is. It’s quietly savage writing, and the fury of Eileen Chang’s writing is intact in the script that Schamus co-wrote with Wang Hui Ling.
The film was impeccably shot by Rodrigo Pietro, who is one of those absolutely reliable craftsmen, film after film, doing strong, stylish work. BABEL, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, ALEXANDER, 21 GRAMS, 25th HOUR, 8 MILE... he’s been a key player in some incredibly strong visual films, and his work here is rich and burnished, a memory piece that occasionally burns extra-bright, like it’s about to burn through the emulsion. Alexandre Desplat’s score is lush and heartbreaking as well. I never felt the film’s length... out of this year’s “long movies” (anything over two and a half hours), this was one of the easiest sits. It’s engrossing and the film’s slow fuse really made it powerful when it finally ignites. I think this is another impressive effort by Ang Lee, and it makes me glad he’s managed to stay so true to his own voice, so strong in terms of how he approaches material, even after being in the studio system so completely. He’s maintained his identity from day one, and he’s continued to make films that not only explain and explore his own culture but that invite everyone else in as well.