In Lust, Caution, the latest film from director Ang Lee, art doesn't imitate life so much as impersonate it. The story begins in Hong Kong in 1938, with a group of university students staging patriotic plays to protest the Japanese occupation. The most innocent and accidental member of the troupe, Wang Jiazhi (Tang Wei), is also the most gifted, and quickly emerges as its star actress. But before long the group's director, Kuang Yu Min (Lee-Hom Wang), envisions a more direct form of political action: the assassination of an important Japanese collaborator, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai). Before you can say "the acting challenge of a lifetime," the youthful band has assumed false identities and Wang has insinuated herself into Mr. Yee's heavily fortified Hong Kong household.
The storyline of a theatrical troupe that goes underground to stage a political assassination initially seems better suited to comedy than drama, and there are indeed a few moments of humor early on. "We've got the guns," argues a young conspirator who's grown tired of the long, uncertain infiltration. "Why don't we kill a couple of easy targets? Now, before school starts." It's hardly surprising that, before long, the amateurish plot fails and the plotters scatter.
But if the first attempt played partly as farce, the second is pure tragedy. Three years later, another opportunity arises to target Yee, this time in Shanghai, and Kuang--who now has the backing of the organized resistance--again asks Wang to get close to the collaborator. She succeeds only too well, and soon finds herself Yee's mistress. This is a demanding role, given that Yee is the head of the secret police and his sex life frequently resembles an extension of his day job: violent, dominating, and cruel. As for Wang, who can discern the meaning of the small smile she flashes after their first coital encounter? Is her satisfaction carnal or tactical?
With a resume that includes Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Brokeback Mountain in the last dozen years, Ang Lee is arguably the most gifted director of drama working today. In Lust, Caution he once again explores the themes of repression and release that have characterized his best work, and his cinematic eye and sense of mood are as subtle and meticulous as ever: He is the master of undeclared affections and telling glances. Lee's cast (which also features Joan Chen as Yee's pampered wife) is exceptional, and none more so than newcomer Tang, whose supple, multilayered performance carries the film. The cinematography, by Rodrigo Prieto, is simultaneously lush and elegant.
Yet, for all its virtues, Lust, Caution feels emotionally remote, a film that is easier to admire than to adore. In part, no doubt, this is a matter of cultural translation. In my experience, Chinese films about secret passions--even those directed by filmmakers as fiercely talented as Lee and Zhang Yimou--are often a tad opaque to Western eyes. But there's more to it than that. (The unspoken love Michelle Yeoh held for Chow Yun-Fat in Lee's last Mandarin-language film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was entirely apparent and quite heartbreaking.)
Rather, the whys and wherefores of Wang's relationship with Yee never become any less obscure and perplexing than her first, contented half-smile. Even the film's notorious sex scenes, graphic and acrobatic though they may be, seem somehow cool and technical, bodies displayed but spirits far distant. Despite its considerable running time--well over two-and-a-half hours--Lust, Caution rarely gets under the skin.