Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Proceed with Caution

Beware a short story that expands into a 157-minute film; that's a sure sign that the material has been overthought on its way to the movies. The affliction marks Lust, Caution, Ang Lee's followup to the great Brokeback Mountain, a short story adaptation done completely right. Lee's gift as a filmmaker is his acute sensitivity to and empathy for his characters; his weakness, a stifling self-importance when he can't locate the core of what he's engaged in. I happen to like, for example, Hulk, but through the comic book frame of my affection it's easy to see that the film was a whole lot more than it really needed to be. So, too, with Lust, Caution, which should have been an agile, quick-witted Asian cousin to the similarly long but never once logy Black Book (on DVD today) but instead sustains a single flat note for too long a time.

Lust, Caution, which Focus Features opens on Friday, Sept. 28, is a kind of reverse Notorious. Not to spoil anything, but imagine that the Ingrid Bergman character in the classic Hitchcock picture decided to bail on Cary Grant and ally herself with Claude Rains and his neo-Nazi scheming. That roughly approximates the storyline of the film, which should have emerged as perverse but instead registers as sloggy and distasteful. Set in World War II-era China, the story centers on Mrs. Mak (played by newcomer Tang Wei), who is part of a mahjong playing circle of well-appointed ladies in Shanghai. Or so it seems. We learn, through subsequent actions and lengthy flashbacks, that she is a spy, Wong Chia Chi, who has assumed an identity and placed herself in their company to get close to group member Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen). Her husband, played by the veteran Hong Kong actor Tony Leung, is a key Japanese collaborator, deeply involved in the torture of Chinese resistance members like Wong and the members of her own secret circle, who have been playing the spy game since college. (And not too ably; in a rare interesting scene that echoes Torn Curtain, a collegiate caper goes terribly wrong.) Wong's assignment, once the now more organized resistance approaches her in Shanghai, is to draw the hard-shelled Mr. Yee, her earlier target, into an ever-more-impertinent affair that will cause him to let down his guard, but an unforeseen factor is her own vulnerability.

This all sounds more pulse-quickening than it is. If you like watching mahjong tiles tumble about, Lust, Caution, may be the movie for you. Once the show gets up from the table, it doesn't get any more arresting. Tang Wei gives a proficient but opaque performance as Wong, and her remoteness is a stubborn obstacle. Wang Leehom, a singer, is another attractive blank as Kuang, who as a drama student gets her involved in resistance activities but is unable to act on his feelings toward her. Leung is a more magnetic performer, but outside of subtle makeup that helps him look more than 10 yeas older than he is he makes little more than a cold surface impression as the chilly Mr. Yee. Much has been made of their NC-17 level sex scenes, which are frenzied and violent, but unarousing, and take about 90 minutes to get to. HBO, as it happens, has trumped them; you can see more, and feel more, on an average episode of Tell Me You Love Me. Whatever period recreation went into the film is on the inside, in its airless rooms; Rodrigo Prieto's camera rarely seems to go outdoors, a pity, as there must have something more compelling happening on Shanghai's spy-packed streets.

To appease China's censors, Lee plans to cut a half hour from the running time for its release there. The sex scenes will surely be headed for the cutting-room floor. If only, for the US release, he would cut a half hour, or more, from Lust, Caution, which Variety aptly described as too cautious and not lustful enough. The sex scenes can stay; too bad they amount to its raison d'etre, and are not woven more skillfully into a vague and unsatisfying film.

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