Nominated for Best Foreign Language Picture at this year's Golden Globes, Ang Lee's Lust, Caution once had all the buzz in the world. The winner of the Venice Film Festival, the erotic wartime thriller appeared poised for a run at Oscar glory; that is, until it got stamped with an NC-17 rating, received mixed reviews among U.S. critics and disappeared without as much as a whimper.
Lust, Caution is one of the few legitimate NC-17 movies on the market, and corresponding with what the MPAA deems inappropriate for children under 17, Lust, Caution lives up to its rating. The film does have some fairly explicit sexuality that I'm sure tantalized the MPAA analysts just a bit too much for their comfort, yet it's no surprise Lee opted to keep the scenes intact. After all, the sex scenes are the one bold aspect in an otherwise quiet, forgettable film.
The movie stars Wei Tang as a young woman named Wong Chia Chi, who, as part of a radical anti-Japanese theater group during World War II, dons a false identity to infiltrate the home of Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), who is suspected of being a traitor to his country. Over time, Chia Chi slowly seduces the quiet man, and eventually he gives into his darkest passions; the two begin an affair, but the end game is always clear: get him exposed so her partners can finish him off.
Lee does a good job of depicting a crucial time in China's history, and everything about the film is serenely beautiful. The camera moves with a grace that compliments the characters and the story; Lee's decision to keep things slow and understated help fuel the boiling-water-under-the-surface tension that pushes the film along. The movie never feels abrupt; even when the violence of the sex begins, that just feels like a natural progression of Lee's vision.
Yet it is where the film most succeeds that it also fails. The story and characters are so understated at times that when things finally begin to pick up, Lee fails to establish a heightened sense of things. I wanted an explosion, some kind of boiling-over point, a third act where all the slow, methodical build-up would culminate in something greater than the whole. That doesn't happen. There is never a sense of will she/will she not, or that something bad is about to happen. The climax is over before it begins, and it is an utterly disappointing climax. "I watched two and a half hours for this?" you'll ask. Even after the climax fails to deliver, Lee still could have ended the film with a bang, but the credits roll with a whimper of a denouement.
Lust, Caution is a good film that could have been something with a different ending, but Lee's intentionally conservative approach fails him in the end as he never provides anything to balance it out. The ending really breaks this otherwise pretty film, and unless you want to sit through an hour and a half for some fairly kinky sex, there's not much here for the average moviegoer.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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