Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution feels like Casablanca crossed with a Japanese pink film. In acknowledgment of modern tastes, there is lots of NC-17 sex. But at the other extreme, there also are oodles of 1940s-era decorum and emotional repression. The sensibility feels distinctly Asian and fatalistic, though the themes of frustrated love and female-centered tragedy also summon up old-school Western melodrama.
Moving from painfully repressed gay cowboys in Brokeback Mountain to painfully repressed Chinese in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, Lee proves his mettle where the romantic melodrama is concerned. If there is a genre, you can be assured Lee will tackle it.
Lust giving way to love is delivered through the eyes of a delicate, enchanting Chinese actress turned spy, Wong Jiazhi (Tang Wei). Alone first in war-torn Hong Kong and then Shanghai, Wong finds her calling amid a group of idealistic young actors who perform political theater on stage.
Sex will later prove an awakening of sorts for Wong. But it’s the theater that gives her the chance to express emotions less accessible in ordinary life. That notion of performance as liberation remains one of the best things about Lust, Caution.
Anxious to put their political beliefs into action, Wong’s fellow actors convince her to infiltrate the inner circle of Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), a highly placed Chinese official collaborating with the Japanese in Shanghai. Wong finds another opportunity to express her feelings on a very different stage of sorts when she falls in love with Mr. Yee.
After his merging of the Western and a gay love story in Brokeback Mountain, Lee’s biggest disappointment in Lust, Caution may be a conventionality where sex and gender are concerned in the by-now-notorious sex scenes between Wong and Mr. Yee. Despite Lee’s consistently feminine point of view, it’s a pity that Wong’s sexual awakening comes in a Belle de Jour brutal near-rape. According to the conventions of bodice-rippers, Wong is left sprawled on the bed, but possessing that secret smile of a masochistically satisfied woman. Her own father has abandoned Wong for a new life in England, and Lee offers the possibility that even Yee’s tough love is better than no love at all.
But despite some raw sex (less kinky than the film’s extraordinarily erotic repression), Lust, Caution’s conventional take on romance may be most visible in the glittering pink diamond that seals Wong’s unbreakable devotion to Yee. Expensive jewelry is the way to a woman’s heart in this often bauble-obsessed yarn.
Across genre, repression remains a Lee fixation. From the chilly environs of Connecticut in The Ice Storm to those iconic, wounded gay cowboys, many of Lee’s films exhibit a fatalistic disappointment with life’s tragic nature. It’s a pity within a film laden with so much detail and such complex characters that its most important element remains repressed as well: the two lovers Yee and Wong, whose true motives and desires remain so often beyond our understanding.