Saturday, February 16, 2008

Lust, Caution, Three hours of my Life... Out this coming Tuesday, the 19th. (******6/10)

Lust, Caution is the newest movie from the man who may well be the most over-rated director this side of M. Night Shyamalan. Ang Lee, the celebrated director of the magnificent Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, has followed up that triumph with three movies which, while decent, were decidedly over-rated. The Hulk, in which Eric Bana rips off his shirt and becomes giant and green, was a nice new take on the comic book genre, but it was far from revolutionary. Lee followed that one up with Brokeback Mountain, which scored far more points for it's subject matter and for the guts it took to make the project a major Hollywood film, than it did for actual quality. A good film, but not as great as people seem to think. And now we get Lust, Caution. Another film that took guts, another film that pushes boundaries, but not exactly Earth-shattering. (I say he is less over-rated than M. Night Shyamalan, because Lee continues to at the very least make good movies. Shyamalan, since the Sixth Sense and maybe Unbreakable, has blown chunks. His movies have been downright rotten.)

The premise of Lust, Caution is that it is 1942, in the middle of World War II. The Japanese have occupied China since the late 30s, and the story takes place in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong. Tang Wei plays a woman who used to be a college student, and is a part of the resistance fighting the occupation. This is now a collaborative occupation, with both Japanese and Chinese officials cracking down on the populace. Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) is an official in this oppressive government, a man who has risen through the ranks by being brutal and sadistic, torturing people and smoking out the reactionaries. One of those reactionaries is Tang Wei. Her assignment is to infiltrate the collaborationist government by becoming Mr. Lee's lover. And she achieves that goal with considerable success. She is young and beautiful, and quickly catches his eye. Tang Wei is expected to be able to bring about a situation where Mr. Lee can be assassinated by the reactionaries, she is not expected to do it herself.

We do not see the atrocities being committed by Mr. Lee in the movie. Therefore, the only way Ang Lee chooses to show his sadism is through sex. And there is a lot of sex. Dirty, GRAPHIC sex. This film famously got an NC-17 rating from the MPAA, and while I almost never agree with the MPAA, this is one of the few times I actually understand them. The sex becomes the central character in the story, as Tang Wei begins the relationship reluctant to give up her virginity, and then the two graduate to more and more S&M flavoured relations. Mr. Lee begins to show more and more of his true nature, and as he does so, Wei begins to become more and more intertwined with him. She still hates him, but like the Brokeback Mountain cowboys, she can't quit him. By the way, although the sex is graphic, and could possibly be titillating to some, it was not the sadistic quality of it that put me off, it was the bushy armpit hair. Tough to enjoy a sex scene when all you're looking at is armpits.

At any rate, the film is, once again, quite good. But not great, not classic, not wonderful. As always, Ang Lee shows he is terrific with the camera. The shots he uses are breathtaking, and he has an eye for photographing sex with the best of them. But this movie is LONG. And by the time it is over, any connection we have built up with the characters has turned into something of a disconnect simply because of the length. And because there are so many sex scenes, and the sex is really what drives the movie, those are the main basis we have for even knowing the Mr. Lee character at all, and in large part knowing his mistress as well. And by the end, we really don't know how to feel about Mr. Lee at all - we feel like we should hate him, that he is a sadist, but the only way we see that sadism is through sex. However, his mistress likes that bondage type sex. So if she likes it, how can we really be upset with him for it? Perhaps this is what Ang Lee is going for - this is exactly how Tang Wei sees Mr. Lee as well. But it means that there is very little emotional resonance in the final scenes, which ought to be far more powerful than they are. I like this movie, but it is no Crouching Tiger.

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