In Roger Ebert’s review of Lust, Caution, he ended with the words, “Less sense, more sensibility”. Surely we know this is a reference to Ang Lee’s earlier work ‘Sense & Sensibility’ but it’s true. Lust, Caution needs less presentation & more substance.
When watching Lust, Caution, I acknowledged that Lee has done a tremendous service to the look of Hong Kong. Details are his trademark so it’s no surprise that when you see the fight sequences in ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, you know the actors are really up there in the trees. Lee’s works are genuine, taut with energy, precision & historical accuracy. Lee’s confidence is honorable, his cinematography is immaculate & his performances are powerful. But sometimes, a director may be so caught up in the details that they forget the overall schematic, the overall effect of the movie. Unfortunately, Lee is a victim to his own perfectionism.
The story is simple. Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) is the only member of her family that remains in Hong Kong during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The reason is unexplained. She befriends Kuang Yu Min (Leehom Wang) & decides to join an undergraduate band of actors who are staging a patriotic play to raise money for war efforts. Kuang encourages the troupe to make a more effective contribution to China’s war efforts. Knowing that the Japanese Government in China upstages Japan’s tyrannical control of China, the troupe decides to assassinate Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), a special agent of the Japanese Government. What remains of the story are the attempts the troupe makes to assassinate Mr. Yee, only realising that Wong must relinquish her sexual rights to Mr. Yee. Here she becomes a personal prostitute, or a friend of Mr. Yee (this is how he views her) and the remainder of the plot involves her sexual escapades with Mr. Yee & her attempts to deal with her subordination. The end.
Lust, Caution may feel like a leap of greatness to some & a leap of faith for others. I tend to the earlier group because Lee doesn’t break new ground, nor does he attend to the concerns of the troupe as well as he could have. More substance would elevate Lee’s material to higher depths. This is the film’s fundamental flaw: that Lee investigates the implications of tortured souls; elaborates on Wong’s sexual enslavement & analyzes the character’s actions & repercussions without new insights. There are too many beautiful frames when more is needed on the feel; the thought behind the look.
The best scenes are obviously the scenes that received censorship in China yet even from the intensity & the pain it evokes, the purpose of the sex is obvious: Wong is trapped like a woman in a detention center. Her freedom is as limited as an asylum seeker & in the cage is a person who is unfairly ruthless to her because his experiences have minimalized his emotions to simple impulses filled with pain & suffering. He uses Wong as a sex pawn; the sex itself implies his inner demons.
Lust, Caution is not subtle, nor does it provide fresh insights. Lee’s film is based on situations; on impulses & simple desires. It heralds marvelous performances by the two leads & proves that sex on celluloid isn’t merely for the titillation effect. Sex can transcend cultural norms & provide insights into its characters. This is all good but Lee has only provided a glimpse of the surface, not the depths.