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Friday, Feb. 1, 2008
Just say no-ir to Ang epic
All movies require some suspension of disbelief, but some need a lot more than others. I had an easier time swallowing "Beowulf" than director Ang Lee's latest, "Lust, Caution." "Beowulf" trades in fantasy so you make the leap; "Lust, Caution" seeks to explore real human emotions and rings hopelessly false.
This is rather a shock, coming from the director of "The Ice Storm" and "Brokeback Mountain," two films that tackled "difficult" topics (swinging and gay romance), and succeeded by zeroing in on the emotional core of the stories. "Lust, Caution" is based on a concise and very personal short story by Eileen Chang ("Naked Earth"), but Ang Lee turns it into a cold, slow and implausible tale on the big screen.
"Lust, Caution" is a story of intrigue set in Hong Kong and Shanghai from 1938 to 1942 — war-torn years when China bristled under Japanese occupation. Wong Chia Chi (played by newcomer Tang Wei) is a student actress who gets involved with an agitprop group of communists led by Kuang Yu Min (Wang Lee Hom). With his pop-star good looks (Wang's regular occupation), Kuang soon charms Wong into helping his group assassinate a sinister collaborator with the Japanese, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), who tortures and kills members of the resistance. Her role is the "honey pot," who will seduce Mr. Yee, win his confidence, then lead him into a trap.
As one might expect, complications arise when our Mata Hari starts to have feelings for her target. We've seen practically the same story before in director Lou Ye's excellent and criminally underrated "Purple Butterfly," where it's communist spy Cynthia (Zi Yi Zhang) falls for secret policeman Hidehiko Itami (Toru Nakamura) in 1930s Shanghai. Lee's film was about as elliptical and arty as you can get while maintaining a plot, but it still had suspense under its stylish noir patina and there was real attraction between its lovers, two things "Lust, Caution" notably lacks.
Look at Nakamura in "Purple Butterfly" and yes, he's the ideological enemy, but as a guy, you could easily see why Zhang's character would fall for him. He was a secret policeman, but one not yet corrupted by the system, and also a pre-war childhood friend of the woman who seduces him — you could sense their attraction, and how it would confuse their political loyalties. In short, you felt some sympathy toward him.
"Lust, Caution" manages nothing of the sort. Leung's character is a cruel brute whose first romantic encounter with our heroine involves slapping her around, whipping her with a belt and taking her violently from behind. Mr. Yee is a nasty piece of work, and the film never manages to convince us otherwise. Yet it asks us to believe that Wong will fall for Mr. Yee, and to find some redeeming quality in a man who cheats on his wife, beats his mistress, tortures prisoners and sells out his countrymen for his own personal gain.
In interviews, Ang Lee has spoken of how he needed Leung to show a more human face, to not be just a villain, but having watched the film twice now, it's clear Lee failed in the task. Leung is a talented actor, and gifted at portraying complex characters — just witness his almost wordless turn in "Cyclo," where he alternately pimps and pines for Tran Nu Ye^n-khe^: You hate the guy, and yet somehow you don't.
That's exactly the sort of performance that was required here, and who knows, maybe it wound up on the cutting-room floor (or, these days, the desktop trash-can). It sure ain't on the screen. Between the stone-faced gazes and the many cigarettes smoked, Leung phoned this one in.
Lee's judgment was awry in his choice of female lead as well. Tang Wei was supposedly cast after the filmmakers supposedly auditioned 10,000 women, but why they did so instead of pursuing someone like Xou Xun ("Suzhou River") is pretty hard to understand.
Tang needs to be a sultry temptress, but with her Kewpie doll face and flat delivery, a duller film-noir heroine has rarely been seen. One gets the sense that the main casting issue was to find a Chinese actress who was OK with doing rather explicit sex scenes, though Tang is as unconvincing in those as she is in every other scene.
The film's producers seem puzzled that "Lust, Caution" has done only a fraction of "Brokeback Mountain's " box office. They needn't be: The film is an incredible bummer, featuring dislikable characters, turgid pacing and failing to deliver the suspense you'd expect from a noirish thriller. (One scene is set with a poster for Alfred Hitchcock's "Suspicion" in the background, but this is not a comparison Lee should be encouraging.) You get to the end and wonder what the film's point is: That a person can betray her ideals, her friends, her country, herself even, for a good lay?
Love is indeed blind — and lust more so — but this film stretches the aphorism to the breaking point.