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, (2007)
Lust, Caution


Reviewed by: bkasten
Date: 03/07/2009

A film that at times reaches true greatness in its subtleties of emotion...and at others, devolves into self-indulgence, bordering on fetishism, this Ang Lee directed love tragedy is set in Shanghai and Hong Kong during the War of Resistance (i.e., the appalling Japanese occupation of China starting in 1937 which ranks among the worst atrocities in human history).

Given such a backdrop, the fact that the film is a tragedy should come as no surprise. But while this is certainly not an uplifting film, it is not a horribly depressing film either. And emotionally one is drawn into the story and the characters just to the point where you care about the choices they make and almost feel what the characters feel, leaving one largely satisfied, and one's belief thoroughly suspended throughout.

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What follows is analysis, and some minor film spoilers. Read no further unless you have already seen the film, or just don't care to have key plot details revealed.

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What we have here are a bunch of young artistes/actors in Shanghai that are young and highly idealistic, have the necessary connections, and begin planning the infiltration and assassination of an important local figure that is collaborating with the occupying Japanese. Their first step is to train themselves to be killers and spies...and eventually realize that the amazingly talented actress among them (the Tang Wei character, "Wong Chia Chi") would be the most suited to infiltrate and seduce their "target" to set him up for the kill. While she partially succeeds at infiltrating, seducing and building the trust of their target, it eventually goes terribly awry, ending in one of the most gratuitous directorially-self-indulgent (porno)graphic murder scenes I have scene in mainstream Hollywood-funded cinema.

This leads to the second act, where the same group reforms after several years, and makes another attempt.

And as directorially self-indulgent as the first act's murder scene was, it was that much more that the second act's sex scenes between the Little Tony Leung (Mr. Yee) and Tang Wei characters were. However, that would be mistakenly dismissing all of the film's sex just a little too quickly. For what the sex scenes actually reveal is the subtle way in which they were slowly breaking down one another's barriers. The screenplay used overt and graphical depictions of sexual passion to drive this portion of the plot...and over time he "got" to her, and she "got" to him. And as we approached the films climax, we are left wondering whether they both knew all along that each other were (initially) faking.

Ultimately, the two did indeed break each other--as depicted in two memorable scenes that are as well filmed as any this reviewer has ever seen: the scene at the Japanese brothel where "Wong Chia Chi" sings to Mr. Yee (and had me in tears as it did the Mr. Yee character); as well as the scene where Yee gives "Wang Jia Zhi" the ring. True cinematic greatness.

Ultimately "Mr. Yee" let down his guard, and, rather disappointingly, it was "Wong Chia Chi" that could not see her now-true-lover assassinated. She saved him, and essentially sacrificed her own life. All rather predictable, actually.

From my perspective some of this is refreshing, as sex is not well handled in American films due to what is still a very highly sexually repressed, misogynistic, and deeply homophobic American culture. Adult sexual relations are either about domination/humiliation/subordination, are vastly oversimplified, misogynist, or simply raw genetalia-detailed masturbation-driven pornographic fantasy for men. Cinema rarely even discusses sex at an adult level, let along depict it. To see a film approach it with this level of seriousness, and yet partially fail because it was simply too indulgent is slightly disappointing. On the other hand, I really have to ask to what extent seeing others engage in explicit sex acts in a film is necessary other than to satisfy a voyeuristic fantasy, or simply as masturbation material.

I believe this is a personal preference, and as such I tried to not let it detract from my enjoyment of the film.

If the overindulgence and gratuity were toned down, I would find this to be a nearly flawless piece of cinematic art.

Reviewer Score: 9

Reviewed by: cal42
Date: 12/28/2008

During the Japanese occupation of China of the 30s and 40s, a young idealistic acting troupe, spurred by their own patriotic plays, decide to take direct action and assassinate a Chinese traitor working for the Japanese government. Over the course of four years, Wong Chia-Chi (newcomer Tang Wei) follows traitor Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and they become lovers, despite Yee’s notorious caution and the possibility that he suspects her true motive for sleeping with him.

LUST, CAUTION is a surprisingly taut romantic drama/thriller given its impressive running time. Of course, it’s more renowned for its eye-boggling sex scenes, which often look far too realistic to be simulated.

Told through the eyes of Wong Chia-Chi, the film begins as the assassination attempt is about to take place and then flashes back four years earlier to her involvement with the acting school and their pledge to kill the traitors of China. They mark Mr Yee through their contact Tsao (former stuntman and sometime lead actor Chin Kar-Lok), who eventually rumbles the plot and is killed by the gang. This leads to their recruitment in the Resistance proper, who had been eying them up for some time, and Wong’s mission to find Yee’s weak spot so they can kill him, even following him to Shanghai from Hong Kong.

With Wong being a virgin, she takes “instruction” from another actor so that she can play the part of a married woman in her bedroom dealings with Yee. However, the animalistic nature of their first coupling (in what can only be described as semi-rape) soon gives way to a more conventional and passionate affair as the two get to know each other. You get the feeling (although it’s never expressly stated) that Yee has suspicions that “Mrs Mak” (as Wong is known to him) might be working for the Resistance, but finds it impossible to stay away from her despite his cautious nature.

The visual style of LUST, CAUTION is impressive, as is the portrayal of early 40s Shanghai (complete with dead bodies littering the streets and massive queues for food). The central performances are strong, although I’m not 100% sold on Tang Wei. Tony Leung is as great as usual, and even pop sensation Wang Lee-Hom gives a good performance.

As mentioned earlier, this is really quite explicit stuff, sexually. I’ve never seen anything quite as explicit in a mainstream film, to tell the truth, and it looks pretty damn convincing at times. Be warned though that this is certainly not a porn film – the “action” doesn’t even start until about an hour and a half into the movie – so if you’re expecting a quick thrill you’ll probably be better of just sticking to the internet (or so I’m told). I think sex scenes in films are all gratuitous to a certain degree, but I have to admit there’s a point to the ones in here, shocking as they are. What is talked about less is the one very strong instance of violence. It’s easily as shocking as the sex scenes and quite unpleasant to watch. Again, it’s all quite necessary for the plot, but be warned...

I found LUST, CAUTION a surprisingly accessible and engaging film that easily justifies its lengthy running time. It keeps the viewer guessing on the outcome and is never predictable or pretentious and packs quite a punch on an emotional level. I’m not a huge Ang Lee fan, but even I have to admit this is impressive stuff.

Reviewer Score: 9

Reviewed by: Gaijin84
Date: 03/30/2008
Summary: A great return for Ang Lee...

Lust, Caution is Ang Lee's return to Chinese filmmaking starring the great Tony Leung and newcomer Tang Wei. Wei plays Wong Chia Chi, a young student in Shanghai who becomes involved in a plot to murder Mr. Yee (Leung), a government collaborator with the Japanese. She is drawn into the scheme by the charismatic force of the group's leader Kuang Yu Min (played by singer Wang Lee-Hom) and eventually assumes the lead role in the plot, namely to seduce Yee and eventually lead him to his death at the hands of her friends. Soon though, her seduction leads to a passionate physical affair and Wong's feelings for Yee, despite his treasoness activities, could compromise the entire plan.

Despite its nearly 2 hour and 40 minute (uncut) length, "Lust, Caution" is a tremendous film from Lee. Its look compliments its high budget, with fantastic sets, scenery and costumes. Tony Leung, as expected, is fantastic. He has a mannerism about him that is so smooth and polished that you cannot take your eyes off him when he is on screen. Every word out of his mouth or reaction to another person seems to be instantaneously perfectly calculated for the situation. The only moment when he is broken out of this state, fittingly, is when he realizes the situation he has fallen into as a result of his passion. As good as Leung is, he is matched by Tang Wei in her screen debut. No doubt she was assisted in her performance by Lee's direction, but she is a marvel to watch. She plays the vulnerable emotion perfectly, but can become steely hardened when faced with adversity. Her much vaunted sex scenes with Leung are quite graphic and intense, but are still done in a way that doesn’t feel out of place in the story. They match the lead character's emotions and positions at the time. Excellent supporting performances are supplied as well by Joan Chen (who plays Yee's wife), Zhu Zhi-Ying as the other woman in the group and veteran Chin Kar Lok as Yee's bodyguard. "Lust, Caution" is definitely a film that deserves the accolades and awards it received and should find itself in anyone's viewing schedule as soon as possible.

9.5/10

Reviewer Score: 10

Reviewed by: mrblue
Date: 01/31/2008

After winning the Oscar for best director with 2005's Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee returned to the screen with Lust, Caution, which also generated some controversy for its' dealing of sexuality. Even though it was slapped with a Category III/NC-17 rating (normally a kiss of death), Lust, Caution still became a small arthouse hit, was a favorite of many critics, and won the Golden Lion (best picture) at last year's Venice Film Festival.

All that being said, Lust, Caution simply didn't work for me. I know what a lot of you are thinking: "that's not surprising for someone who likes Wong Jing's movies, drinking beer, and playing video games." But, dear reader, I can appreciate a good "arty" movie. Just take a look at the review of Ashes of Time for an example.

Don't get me wrong. Lust, Caution does a lot of things right. The set design is fabulous; you really get a sense that you are looking at Shanghai in the 1940's. The music, cinematography, and editing are nearly flawless. Simply put, Lust, Caution is a gorgeous picture to look at, and with solid performances from the leads, you would think there would be some weight to the proceedings.

Sadly, there's not. At the end of the 240-minute running time, one doesn't really feel like they learned anything new about the characters and their situation. Sure, I appreciated how Lust, Caution expressed both the power and shame of sexual relations in Chinese society, especially for females. But that sort of thing could be gleaned from any number of other books or films.

The term "jade vase" is used to describe actresses who are paid to look pretty and not do much else, and I think that could be applied to Lust, Caution as a whole. Honestly, if it wasn't for the buzz generated around this movie's fairly explicit sex scenes, would Lust, Caution have caught as much critical acclaim as it did?

[review from www.hkfilm.net]

Reviewer Score: 6

Reviewed by: dandan
Date: 01/12/2008
Summary: i've been in hong kong two months and all i've seen is central and repulse bay...

wong chia-chi (tang wei) has left the mainland, moving to attend university in hong kong, escaping the japanese occupation. chia-chi joins a university drama group, led by kuang (wang lee-hom, who want to stir hong kongers into taking action against the japanese. after some success, with chia-chi revealing herself as a talented actress, kuang reveals that he has bumped into an old friend, tsao (chin kar-lok), who now works for yee (tony leung). yee is a collaborator, who is working with the japanese and kuang sees an opportunity for the group to make a bigger impact.

chia-chi assumes the false identity; mak tai, wife of an import-export merchant, and slowly begins to build a friendship with mrs yee (joan chen) and, subsequently, with yee himself...

well, there's been a lot of talk about this film: a considerable amount has been concerned with the three, quite explicit, sex scenes between tang and leung, but there has also been a whole lot of praise for the film, which has already garnered many awards (including the 'golden lion' for ang lee, at venice).

firstly, i shall agree with the praise that has been heaped on this film, it really is an excellent piece of cinema; i'm already thinking about going to watch it again. adapted from eileen chang's short story, by long time lee collaborator james schamus, lee crafts a fantastically realised production, which is involving, intense and moving. it is also the second film i've watched, this year, whose one hundred and sixty minutes just flew by. the other being, the excellent, 'the assassination of jesse james by the coward robert ford'.

secondly, i shall say that the sex scenes, between tang and leung, are both integral to the film and pretty intense to watch. this leads me, quite nicely, to heap praise on the two participants of said scenes. now, i have long admired tony leung; ever since he graduated from playing some rather poor roles in, usually, equally poor films (even if i do quite enjoy a number of these) to his undisputed position as a darling of art house cinema and serious drama. it is no surprise that he pulls a great performance out of the bag, although i had been slightly concerned after his lacklustre contribution, to the equally lacklustre 'confession of pain'.

however, regardless of leung's contribution, the star of this film is, without question, tang wei. without a doubt, she is someone to be watched, especially when you consider that this is her film debut; she is absolutely amazing. i was literally blown away by her performance and she fully lived up to the praise which had already been heaped upon her. you know, when she was delivering her closing speech, in the stage play at the beginning of the film, i was almost welling up and ready to shout "china will not fall!" as well...

a great film...