Lust, Caution

Posted on: 04 January 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Our reviewer finds Ang Lee's new film an absorbing and passionate espionage thriller.

Trust and betrayal and the price you have to pay is the theme explored by Ang Lee in his 2007 Venice Film Festival Gold Lion winner Lust, Caution, released nationwide 4th January 2007, which, despite what its title might suggest, is neither crude nor lewd but a gripping, beautifully crafted espionage thriller with some steamy but unexploitative scenes of passion.

The place is Shanghai, the year 1942 during the Japanese occupation. Mrs Mak, a sophisticated and wealthy woman, enters a café and makes a phone call. While awaiting a reply she recalls the events that took place four years earlier which would have such a devastating impact on her life at a time when she was not known as Mrs Mak but shy Wong Chia Chi.

With World War II underway, Wong has been left behind by her father, who has escaped to England. At university she meets fellow student Kuang Yu Min who has started a drama society to shore up patriotism. Joining as the theatre group's new leading lady, Wong realises that she has found her calling, able to move and inspire audiences.

More importantly, though, Wong has become a vital asset to the underground revolutionary movement and Kuang persuades her to take part in a daring plot to assassinate a top Japanese collaborator, Mr. Yee.

Posing as the wife of a rich businessman, she insinuates herself into Mr. Yee's life by befriending his wife and then drawing him into an affair. Wong transforms herself utterly inside and out and everything runs smoothly until an unexpectedly fatal twist forces her to flee.

The story moves forward to 1941, Shanghai. With no end in sight for the occupation, Wong, having emigrated from Hong Kong, goes through the motions of her existence. Much to her surprise, Kuang re-enters her life. Now part of the organised resistance, he enlists her again to become Mrs Mak in a revival of the plot to kill Yee, who, as head of the collaborationist secret service, has become even more a key part of the puppet government. But as Wong reprises her earlier role and is drawn ever closer to her dangerous prey, she finds her very identity being pushed to the limit.

Based on a short story by Eileen Chang, this is a film which takes a while to get going and indeed dawdles along in its early stages but then steadily builds up power and emotion while skilfully moving back and forth in time and draws you into the characters' worlds. Furthermore Lee is a past master at capturing the nuances of suppressed and concealed passion amidst everyday subterfuge.

This too is a movie with a strongly evocative sense of time and place, cleverly contrasting the lives of the privileged, wealthy wives who pass their days playing mahjong, seemingly oblivious to the upheavals taking place outside their narrow, confined world, with the poor queuing for rice and basic supplies in the bustling, crowded streets of the city.

Lee always manages to elicit splendid performances from his actors and this is no exception - Tony Leung perfectly embodies the suave, charismatic but quite lethal character of Mr. Yee, Joan Chen is most convincing as his wife, while attractive screen newcomer Tang Wei is simply mesmerising as Wong.

This indeed is a film which lingers in the mind long after the final credits have rolled.

By Laurence Green

Read an interview with Ang Lee here.

You can watch the trailer here.

More information can be found at:

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