Sony Pictures Classics
How good it is to know that Ang Lee is in the film world, working away. It's not only his range that attracts, amazing though it is, with films of a chef in Lee's native Taiwan, of a Jane Austen novel, of the American Civil War, and others. Lee's range is more than versatility. Each milieu is plumbed in its essences. Underlying his extraordinary gifts is, we feel, a belief that film exists in order to embrace varying humanities.
Lee's new film supports this view in an odd way, because it is not set in a country or culture far removed from his own. Lust, Caution takes place in the past--1942, 1938, 1941, then 1942 again--but it is Chinese. Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Shanghai (again) are the cities. The new element for Lee this time is not so much cultural: it is internal discovery. Lee based his picture on a short story of the same name by Eileen Chang, and, good as the story is, Lee improves it--at least he and his screenwriters have seen how the story needed to be redefined for cinema. Curiously, he risks a good deal by being faithful to the story in some particulars. By that fidelity the film of Lust, Caution asks some patience of us, but our patience pays off.
The story is set in the nexus of Chinese resistance to Japanese occupation in those years. (The similar cruelties going on elsewhere in the world are unmentioned but suggested.) The screen adaptation, by Lee's longtime associates Wang Hui Ling and James Schamus, centers on a young woman named Wong Chia Chi.
Chang, in the original story, concentrates on the bland surface of social events--the mah-jongg, the restaurants, the chitchat of the wives and women of the Chinese stooges who are collaborating with the Japanese oppressors. Vicious matters writhe along offstage, so to speak, implied but unseen--mostly commanded by the husband of the mah-jongg hostess. In Shanghai in 1942, Wong becomes the mistress of that husband, whose name is Yee. Wong is a member of a Chinese resistance group: her assignment is to become intimate with Yee so that she can lure him to a place where her friends will kill him. While this plan is in motion, the story flashes back--at length--to Wong's student days in Hong Kong, where Yee is then stationed. Wong joins the resistance group in Hong Kong, but the assassination plans are postponed when Yee is moved to Shanghai. Eventually the resistance group follows.
Much of the film glides along, like the story, on the glossy surface beneath which the group operates. Wong spends days playing mah-jongg with Mrs. Yee and other women. (The background of the story, the college days in Hong Kong involving student plays and a nascent love affair, are detailed in order to give Wong complexity.) In the story, Chang's focus on trifles makes us feel the imminence of something grave. That implicit gravity doesn't hover as effectually in the film, despite the assassins' meetings that we see. Thus, for the first hour or so, Lust, Caution lolls prettily in the mah-jongg lives of Mrs. Yee and her friends. The viewer can find himself wondering why Lee--the Lee we know--was interested in the subject.
Then comes the fulfillment of the story in a way that apparently was out of Chang's reach. In the story the eventual sex between Wong and Yee is mentioned almost peripherally. For Ang Lee the sexual scenes are the crux. Those scenes do much more than display what Chang only implied. They create a stronger being for the original story.
After Yee maneuvers Wong (as he thinks) into an affair, the several sex scenes are feverishly vivid. In the first of them we may initially get a bit impatient with the details. But those details include close-ups of Wong's face that show her submitting, for her purpose, to somewhat rough lovemaking by a man she loathes. However, in the sex scenes that follow, which are even rougher, the close-ups show Wong as a participant, not a victim.
This sexual melding leads to plot matters that I must not divulge. But I can note that Lee does not alter Chang's ending: he dramatizes it. Further: those sex scenes are among the very few such in films that are essential. Lee has perceived in Chang's story something that is only suggested there and that his film realizes--a cosmos of sensuality, a bonding by orgasm into a union beyond the world's protocols, whatever the cost may eventually be. In the recent French film Lady Chatterley, the director portrayed the loving passion of which sex is the evidence. In Lust, Caution Lee invokes the fright of being in such a cosmos without a scintilla of love.
Tang Wei, who plays Wong, makes her film debut here and does it with a conviction that is moving. The experienced Tony Leung, as Yee, rids the man of villainous cliche; Leung gives us a taciturn monster who is fast finding the banality in his evil. Can one congratulate two actors on the heat of their sex scenes? At least, we can sense their confidence in Ang Lee and his in them, and salute them all.
Anthony Shaffer's play Sleuth has two characters, a young man and a middle- aged man. When the play was filmed in 1972, Michael Caine played the younger one. Patience, if that is what it was, has been rewarded: now Caine plays the older man.
Whoever makes a film of Sleuth is out for fun. The money motive is not exactly absent, but because of the level of trickery in Sleuth, the enterprise demands a yen for cleverness. The fact that there are only two characters is the tip-off. The virtual announcement of a duet early on launches the vaudeville-act atmosphere.
It all takes place in the luxurious home of a rich crime novelist, Andrew Wyke; the other man is his estranged wife's lover, Milo Tindle, an actor and hairdresser, who has come to see if Andrew will grant his wife a divorce. Andrew is very cordial, very invitingly conversational, so we know early on that some sort of game is afoot. Andrew's game, though he seems to accept his wife's affair, is to wreak vengeance on Milo. Milo, no dullard, scents this intent quickly but is nonetheless inveigled because of the bait that Andrew has put in place. (And the director, Kenneth Branagh, evokes with camera and actor movement an attar of possible homosexuality.)
All of the plot is slickly carpentered. (Well, a couple of glitches. For instance, why does Milo immediately believe Andrew's assurance of gain from the scheme he proposes?) But there is a bigger problem. I saw the first production of the play in New York as well as the 1972 film, and this new film hasn't cured--couldn't cure--the basic trouble. Sleuth goes on too long. Nimble though it is, the last quarter or so exists chiefly to tie up loose ends. The entertainment, which has been consistent up to then, lags.
Harold Pinter certainly knew all this when he agreed (before the Nobel Prize) to write the new screenplay. Nonetheless, the card-trick possibilities in the plot evidently amused him. He says that he had not seen Sleuth in either of its previous incarnations and had begun work only with the Shaffer script. Some of Pinter's plays, especially the short ones, float in a subtle abracadabra air, and that kinship was apparently enough to get him going. He does provide some silken trickery of his own, and the dialogue has Pinter characteristics--e.g., simple sentences cannily made ominous. But even if it had more of them, Sleuth would still not be Pinter. It is only about its story. In echt Pinter the story is the avenue to the subject.
Still, this film wants only to entertain, and other talents have gathered with Pinter to help. First among them is the designer Tim Harvey. The crime novelist has brought in technicians and electronic wizards to make his huge house a palace of remote-control dazzle. Walls glide in and out, an elevator functions, and video screens attest to almost everything--all at Andrew's touch of a small control he keeps in his pocket. This of course is Harvey's deviltry. Next is the cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, who makes light gather and disappear as if divinities were brooding over the action. The very look of the film establishes that this is the right locale for well-machined trickery.
Michael Caine plays Andrew, who was played by Laurence Olivier when Caine was the younger man. I can't remember Caine's earlier performance with Shaffer's dialogue, but, appropriately aged, he is a perfect speaker of Pinterese. Caine, who has often been underrated as an acting talent, here reigns over the screen with sheer composure. Jude Law, the other man, has also suffered underpraise, usually because of his good looks. Oddly enough, the only dubious part of his performance here comes when his good looks are interfered with.
Lastly, and substantially, there is Branagh, the director. Not long ago HBO broadcast Branagh's film of As You Like It, which was unabatedly catastrophic. I watched it cringing. Branagh's Henry V and, to a great extent, his Hamlet had changed my views about Shakespeare on film, and now there was this seeming act of cowardice, this helter-skelter fear of really doing the play he was supposed to be doing. Sleuth does not present on film anything like the problems in Shakespeare, but it shows more smart invention, more implicit delight than that last bardic plunk. So perhaps the Shakespeare was only a regrettable gaffe in a bustling career. Branagh recently made a film of The Magic Flute. Lovers of Bergman's film and admirers of Branagh, like me, will hope.
By Stanley Kauffmann