×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Lust, Caution

Too much caution and too little lust squeeze much of the dramatic juice out of Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution."

With:
With: Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Tang Wei, Joan Chen, Wang Leehom, Anupam Kher, Chu Tsz-ying. (Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, English, Japanese dialogue)

Too much caution and too little lust squeeze much of the dramatic juice out of Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution,” a 2½-hour period drama that’s a long haul for relatively few returns. Adapted from a short story by the late Eileen Chang, tale of a patriotic student — who’s willing bait in a plot to assassinate a high-up Chinese collaborator in Japanese-held WWII Shanghai — is an immaculately played but largely bloodless melodrama which takes an hour-and-a-half to even start revving up its motor.

A handful of explicit sex scenes (in the final act) have earned pic an NC-17 rating in the U.S., where it goes out in limited release Sept. 28. But beyond the notoriety of a Chinese-language picture with full-frontal female nudity, pic lacks the deep-churning emotional currents that drove Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” and his best other works. B.O. in the West looks to be modest, once the initial ballyhoo has died down.

Popular on Variety

Story opens in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in 1942, at the home of Yee (Hong Kong’s Tony Leung Chiu-wai), head of the secret service of the collaborationist Chinese government, and his wife (Joan Chen). One of Mrs. Yee’s mahjong partners, swapping gossip over the tiles, is the much younger Mrs. Mak (Tang Wei), the half-Cantonese, half-Shanghainese wife of a businessman who was recently in Hong Kong.

As Yee returns from work and passes by the mahjong table, it’s clear there’s something between him and Mak, though neither one lets their façade slip. Later, Mak makes a coded phone call to Kuang Yumin (U.S.-born pop star Wang Leehom), who says “the operation can start.”

After this lengthy 15-minute intro, largely occupied by idle chatter around the mahjong table, the film flashes back four years to Hong Kong to show who Mak really is: Wang Jiazhi, a first-year university student whose family fled Hong Kong for the U.K. Through her friend Lai (Chu Tsz-ying), Wang falls in with a patriotic, anti-Japanese group that is mounting a play to fund their activities.

Leader of the group is the passionate Kuang, who hears that Yee, a high-ranking collaborator with the Japanese, is in Hong Kong on a recruitment mission. Kuang hatches a plan in which Wang plays the fictional Mrs. Mak and insinuates herself into Mrs. Yee’s confidence. But Mrs. Yee’s cool, wily husband, though attracted to Wang, slips through the net.

Cut to Shanghai, 1941 — a year before the opening timeframe — and it’s round two between Yee and Wang. After Wang is rehired by the resistance to continue her Mrs. Mak role, this time their liaison is far more full-on, and as lust raises its sometimes violent head, it looks as if caution may be thrown to the wind by one or both parties.

Both Leung and newcomer Tang — whose characters are far more charismatic and attractive than in Chang’s original short story — do strike some sparks, especially in the sex scenes, which are very bold by Chinese standards. (A tamer version will reportedly be released in mainland China.) But for most of the film, the two dance around each other in conversations that don’t have much electricity or sense of repressed passion — and vitally, no sense of the real danger that Wang is courting in the game of cat-and-mouse.

Moments of either grim wit (as in the messy stabbing of a blackmailing traitor) or spry comedy (Wang getting rid of her virginity to further the cause) occasionally vary pic’s tone but don’t bolster the underlying drama.

Wartime Shanghai was far more realistically drawn in Lou Ye’s Zhang Ziyi starrer “Purple Butterfly,” which also conveyed a stronger sense of resistance and collaborationist politics. (Here, Yee’s work, which involves interrogation and torture, is never shown.) Lee’s ’40s Shanghai, though immaculately costumed, has a standard backlot look; the Hong Kong sequences, largely shot in Malaysia, are much more flavorsome.

Tang, a Beijing drama student who’s previously played in some TV series, holds her own against Hong Kong vet Leung, who suggests the cold calculation of his character without ever going much deeper. Fellow vet Chen doesn’t get many chances beyond the mahjong table, while Wang Leehom, as the leader of the resistance cell, is just OK, sans much personality.

Alexandre Desplat’s music injects some badly needed emotion and drama at certain points, while lensing by Rodrigo Prieto has little of the variety and atmosphere he’s demonstrated on recent assignments like “Babel,” “Alexander” and Lee’s previous “Brokeback Mountain.”

Lust, Caution

Hong Kong-U.S.-China

Production: A Focus Features release (in U.S.) of a Haishang Films presentation, in association with Focus Features, River Road Entertainment, Sil-Metropole Organization, Shanghai Film Group Corp. (International sales: Focus Features Intl., London.) Produced by Bill Kong, Ang Lee, James Schamus. Executive producers, Ren Zhonglun, Darren Shaw. Co-producers, Doris Tse, David Lee. Directed by Ang Lee. Screenplay, Wang Hui-ling, James Schamus, based on the short story by Eileen Chang.

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color), Rodrigo Prieto; editor, Tim Squyres; music, Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Pan Lai; supervising art director, Olympic Lau; costume designer, Pan; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital), Philip Stockton, Eugene Gearty, Drew Kunin; assistant director, Rosanna Ng; casting, Ng. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Aug. 29, 2007. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Special Presentations.) MPAA Rating: NC-17. Running time: 157 MIN.

With: With: Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Tang Wei, Joan Chen, Wang Leehom, Anupam Kher, Chu Tsz-ying. (Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, English, Japanese dialogue)

More Film

  • 'Wonder Woman 1984' Trailer: Gal Gadot

    'Wonder Woman 1984' Trailer: Gal Gadot Returns With Pedro Pascal, Kristen Wiig

    “Wonder Woman 1984” dropped its first trailer on Sunday, with Gal Gadot returning as the titular Amazonian goddess. The film is set, of course, in the 1980s in America, decades after the first film’s events. Kristen Wiig is playing Wonder Woman’s infamous comic-book nemesis Cheetah, while Chris Pine is returning for the sequel. It’s unclear, [...]

  • Over the Sea

    Macao Film Review: 'Over the Sea'

    The beginning is a fairy tale, or a nursery rhyme. A woman nurses her squalling baby in a house by an orchard near the sea. Sunlight slants in through the open windows, the mother hums a lullaby, and then brings her son outside and places him in a cot suspended from the apple-laden branches of [...]

  • CCA Film Nominations

    Critics' Choice: 'The Irishman,' 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Lead Movie Nominations

    “The Irishman” has picked up the most film nominations for the 35th annual Critics’ Choice Awards. The Martin Scorsese gangster drama goes into the awards show with 14 noms, including best picture, director, acting ensemble as well as best actor (Robert De Niro) and supporting actor (Al Pacino and Joe Pesci), the Critics’ Choice Association [...]

  • Parasite

    LA Film Critics Announce 2019 Winners

    Members of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. met today to vote on the year’s best cinema accomplishments. Recent winners of the group’s top prize include “Roma,” “Call Me by Your Name,” “Moonlight,” “Spotlight,” “Boyhood,” “Her”/”Gravity” and “Amour.” List of winners below. Douglas Edwards Experimental Film Award: “The Giverny Document,” Ja’Tovia Gary Popular on Variety [...]

  • Jumanji The Next Level

    Box Office: 'Jumanji 2' Kicks Off Overseas With $52 Million as 'Frozen 2' Powers Toward $1 Billion

    Disney’s “Frozen 2” skated past international box office competition again as the animated sequel propels toward the billion-dollar mark globally. “Frozen 2” generated another $90 million from 48 foreign territories, boosting its worldwide weekend haul to $124.9 million. After three weekends in theaters, Disney’s musical follow-up has made $919.7 million and should cross $1 billion [...]

  • Lily James

    Lily James Delivers Masterclass in Charm in Macao

    British actor, Lily James delivered a masterclass in charm and good humor at a seminar on Sunday at the International Film Festival and Awards Macao. Questioned on stage by one of the festival’s senior programmers, James brightly chatted her way through eight years of a screen career that has taken her from “Downton Abbey” to [...]

  • Avengers Endgame Lion King Frozen 2

    Disney Crushes Own Global Box Office Record With Historic $10 Billion

    Thanks to a record number of billion-dollar blockbusters, Disney has become the first studio in history to surpass $10 billion at the worldwide box office. Through Sunday, the studio has generated $3.28 billion in North America and $6.7 billion overseas for a global haul of $9.997 billion and is expected to officially cross the benchmark [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content