Perhaps the most challenging thing about watching Ang Lee's new film Lust, Caution is managing to remember that it's not In the Mood for Love. It's not just the presence of Tony Leung that brings the parallel to mind - it's the costumes, the lush interiors, the slow, nuanced unfolding of an impossible relationship.
Normally, this would be high praise. Except that the plot of Lust, Caution is so at odds with the quiet mellowness of Kar Wai's masterpiece, that the end result is an awkward, patchy piece of work that tries to be both frenzied espionage thriller and unlikely love story and is convincing as neither.
The story revolves around a college theater group whose members are coming to political maturity in the shadow of the Japanese occupation of China. Driven by overblown idealism, the students plan to assassinate a leading Chinese collaborator called Mr. Yee (Leung). To this end, they stage an elaborate masquerade to infiltrate the Yee household - an effort that results in one of their number, Wang Jizhai (played - brilliantly - by newcomer Wei Tang) catching the eye of Mr. Yee. The (new) plan is for Wang to seduce Yee to his death, but before this can happen Yee moves back to Shanghai (the action so far has been in Hong Kong) and eventually becomes the head of the secret police. After an interval of a few years, Wang, now older and more disillusioned, follows him there, and contact is reestablished, this time as part of a larger underground plot to assassinate Yee - whose security has so far proved impregnable. Eventually Wang does manage to seduce (and is seduced by) Yee, and the two enter into a bruising and fraught emotional relationship, a kind of sexual Stockholm syndrome, establishing a poisonous intimacy that can (and will) only be broken by Death. How this desperate relationship will play itself out is the key point of suspense in the film.
It's an interesting premise, and must have made for a gripping short story, but it doesn't really work on screen. The big problem with the film, I think, is that it's simply too long. Lee seems to be so much in love with his camera work that he edits as little of it as possible, so that every sequence goes on interminably, its visual and emotional power sapped by exhaustion. Some sequences seem repetitive, others unnecessary - Lee seems intent on showing us every tiny, irrelevant detail of the story, and also seems to feel the need to spell out for us what we could just as easily have inferred for ourselves. Not content with showing us multiple interminable scenes of the couple making love, for example, Lee then has his protagonist deliver an 'outburst' to her underground handlers, telling them how she feels drawn into an intimacy with Yee. A more able, or more confident, filmmaker would have let the scenes speak for themselves. As for the ending - let's just say that I think this would have been a much better film if Lee had stopped some ten, maybe fifteen minutes before he actually does.
The end result of all this is a bloated, unwieldy film that could easily have been at least two-thirds as short as it currently is, without losing (and in all probability gaining) in impact. Worse, the stretching of the story into a 157 minute opus only serves to highlight the thinness of the material. I'm not normally one to insist on veracity in a film plot, but when a film seems to revel in an almost hysterical realism, one can't help questioning its underlying logic. Which, as it turns out, is extremely thin. Why does Yee, a ruthless adversary who can spot an assassination attempt a mile away, take a mistress without bothering to run the most basic background check on her? Why does the underground not assassinate Yee as soon as they get the chance? (We are told it's because they want to get some 'information' from him, but this seems like a feeble excuse to keep the movie going so that the intimacy between Yee and Wang can develop). Most troubling of all, while the movie does a great job of bringing Wang to life, Yee remains a confusing and poorly fleshed out figure (all the other characters are mere caricatures) whose motivations and feelings remain obscure.
Don't get me wrong - this is a beautiful film, with scenes and performances that will take your breath away. The first sexual encounter between Wang and Yee in particular stands out as a shocking and explosive moment of pure violence, and at least a couple of the other scenes are brilliantly done. Pared down to these essentials, Lust, Caution would have been a great movie. As it is, there's too much dead air between the moments where it comes alive, and the end result is a film that is at once symphonic and unconvincing.
[Cross-posted on Momus]