Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. There are eighty films and television series to his name, including collaborations with major directors of Chinese language cinema such as Wong Kar-Wai, Zhang Yimou, John Woo, and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. The period film “Lust, Caution” brings Leung together with another renowned Chinese artist, Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee, in a partnership that not only makes sense but that is also ostensibly inevitable.
Based on a story by acclaimed contemporary Chinese writer Eileen Chang, “Lust, Caution” unfolds against a culturally and politically turbulent Shanghai and Hong Kong during the Second World War. The film opens in 1942 Shanghai and introduces key characters, a pivotal narrative sequence, and then rewinds to 1938 in the midst of the Japanese occupation of China. The film establishes the motives for the future actions of one group of characters and jumps to 1941, outlining the events that lead up to the film’s beginning.
Chronologically, “Lust, Caution” follows an acting troupe comprised of university students led by Kuang Yu-Min (Taiwanese popstar Wang Lee-Hom) struggling with the turmoil of their country’s political crisis. They soon realize that putting on patriotic plays is not enough to express fully their love for their country and determination to fight for freedom from the Japanese. Passionate and naïve, the students channel their acting abilities and assume false identities in a scheme to eliminate Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), who is branded a traitor for cooperating with the Japanese. Wang JiaZhi (Tang Wei) is the focal point of the charade. Pretending to be a Mak Tai Tai (or Mrs. Mak), wife of Mr. Mak (Johnson Yuen) an import-exporter, Wang befriends Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen) and gets close to Mr. Yee, dismantling his cold exterior.
Joan Chen, veteran actress of both Chinese cinema and Hollywood, performs adroitly as Mrs. Yee, a woman bound to complicity regarding the actions of her Japanese-sympathizing husband. Her opinion of national affairs and whether or not she shares Mr. Yee’s views are irrelevant. In fact, Lee’s film suggests that even Mr. Yee’s own motivations do not require illumination. The closest to an explanation the audience is going to receive appears in a scene near the film’s end where Mrs. Mak meets Mr. Yee in a restaurant in the Japanese district. He remarks that the Japanese (women working in the restaurant) sing like they are crying, like “wolves howling at their masters.” The rest of his words implies that he isn’t betraying his countrymen for the sake of personal enjoyment. Mr. Yee attends to his “business,” keeps appointments, provides for his wife, and always drops in to say hello when she and her friends are playing mahjong. A lot of mahjong is played throughout the film; all of it narratively important as it supports the idea that Mrs. Yee’s politics pertain to preservation of lifestyle not patriotism.
Tony Leung’s extraordinary ability to wear a face that betrays no emotion or subtext produces a superb portrayal of Mr. Yee. Leung’s costar, newcomer Tang Wei, matches his stoicism with a countenance of subtlety and versatility. This point-counter-point intensifies in the sequences that have qualified the film for an NC-17 rating. The climactic moments in “Lust, Caution” are amplified due to the manner in which Mr. Yee and Mrs. Mak affect each other. The suffering and self-sacrifice that the story imposes on its characters are masterfully contoured in the hands of Ang Lee, a skillful director of nuance, eye-line matches, and body language.
The value of “the small things” extends to pop-cultural signifiers too. A particularly nice touch in “Lust, Caution” is the inclusion of clips and posters of Hollywood films featuring Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant that played in China during World War II. An awareness of or priority for historical accuracy is not just about architecture, technology, and fashion. In this case, it’s also about creating a kind of atmosphere, and there is scarcely a better way to do so than by foregrounding or back-grounding the films of the given time period. Moreover, when a propaganda piece interrupts one of the screenings, “Lust, Caution” reveals an aspect of living in war times that conveys more in its implicitness than a tirade would in utter frankness.
Lee’s directing style urges the viewer to focus on and indulge in what the characters say and how they look at each other (in long, earnest gazes or in quick, stolen glances). Fortunately, the cinematography (courtesy of Rodrigo Prieto) complements this process. The lingering and tracking camera also enables the audience to absorb visual details and to appreciate the humor sprinkled here and there into the dialogue.
In subject matter, “Lust, Caution” recalls “The White Countess” (James Ivory, 2005) but is stylistically more of a film noir than a war (or anti-war) film. It is beautifully costumed and photographed, and isn’t simply a demonstration of excellent acting. Ang Lee’s directing is so engrossing that one abandons the impulse to rationalize and finds oneself completely swept up in the consciousness of the story.