Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Lust, Caution: Grade A

Lust, Caution (2007)
Wei Tang, Tony Leung. Director Ang Lee. (Chinese, subtitled).

Wei Tang lights up the screen in this visually gorgeous historical drama set in Shanghai in the late 1930’s. The Japanese have invaded China and Leung is a collaborator rounding up anti-Japanese resisters. Tang’s college theater group makes it their patriotic duty to assassinate him. Tang insinuates herself into his wife’s mah-jongg group then seduces him, setting him up for the kill. In their increasingly passionate relationship she sacrifices her body and her soul to gain his trust. There is no reason why the resistance cell could not just pop him while he walks down the street. The idea that he needs to be seduced is an arbitrary story device.

There are a couple of attractively photographed and very steamy sex scenes that border on the gratuitous, but could suggest her mind moving from murder to lust to love. I didn’t buy it. Tang gives an impassioned speech to her fellow assassins about how she despises the guy and is making this huge sacrifice of her mind and body for the cause. Was she lying to them? I thought not. At the key moment in the movie a big diamond clouds her mind and she makes a choice that betrays everything. Dramatic, but again, I didn’t buy it. That’s not her character. So even though tension is maintained between the title nouns, lust and caution, the plot line is anemic and inconsistent with the protagonist’s psychology. But it is a different time and a different culture, so who knows, really?

Another criticism is that every costume, car windshield, bicycle, storefront and sidewalk is perfect, clean, and brand new, not a speck of dirt, dust, or time-worn age anywhere. There are no flowing gutters, no street beggars. Lots of cigarettes but no ashtrays. I’m sure it was artistic choice, perhaps to make the sex scenes seem more aesthetic than sex is. But once you accept the abstract visual style, you can appreciate that Tang’s face is stunning, the costumes are stunning, the sets are stunning, the music is stunning. The movie is a feast for eyes and ears, so beautiful, you don’t need a plot.

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