Or, Black Book with 80% less disturbing fascism.
“If you pay close enough attention, nothing is trivial”, broods Tony Leung in an early scene. That might well be the best summation anyone’s ever given for Ang Lee’s films, and it’s certainly true for Lust, Caution. A director whose body of work is marked by careful attention to the fragile ground between public behaviour and private frustration, Lee here treads well-worn ground.
Leung and Wei Tang are two immensely attractive people. His career is lined with memorably hangdog performances, an Asian Bogart with a touch more quirky irascibility. Her challenge, meanwhile, will be to top a remarkable performance in this breakout role. But their interplay in Lust, Caution feels somewhat forced, treading the line between “characters forced into uncomfortable behavioural contrivances” and “actors forced into clunky seduction scenes”.
The much-discussed sex sequences, then, aren’t unpleasant, just supremely disengaging. Confident onscreen sensuality is a rare feat – and there’s some fine examples here – but raw sexuality of the type Lust, Caution aims for is self-defeating in its very methodology. When confronted with sumptuously-shot footage of beautiful people engaged in unsimulated coitus, the first thought that pops into your head is always going to be, “shit, are they really doing it?”
And right there, that’s when you’ve lost the suspension of disbelief. Or, more succinctly: I am much more likely to buy your performance when it doesn’t involve familiarising myself with your bobbing scrotum.
As with Brokeback Mountain, this exaggerated passion works much better in hindsight: when all’s over, the lingering memory of those couplings is much easier to map onto the surviving characters’ melancholy. The actors’ bravery rightly fades into the background of the characters’ tragic undoing.
Which isn’t to say that it works.