Ang Lee continues his run of stunning successes with this sumptuous adaptation of a short story by popular Chinese writer Eileen Chang. Western audiences unfamiliar with Chang's tale of sex and intrigue in occupied China might recognize this gorgeously costumed and provocatively undressed period piece as a bold and psychologically piquant reworking of Hitchcock's finest film of the 1940s, NOTORIOUS.
Japanese-occupied Shanghai, 1942: Mak Tai-tai (sublime newcomer Tang Wei), the beautiful and exquisitely dressed wife of a successful Hong Kong businessman, sits at a table with the rich and catty wives of collaborationist Wang government officials, playing mahjong with their hostess, Yee Tai-tai (Joan Chen). While occupied China starves under Japan's brutal grip, these women flaunt their ill-gotten affluence, bemoaning the wartime lack of decent food, quality diamonds and foreign cigarettes and mercilessly picking apart their mutual friends. Mrs. Mak, however, is not what she seems: She's actually Wong Chia-chi, a Cantonese country girl who's fallen in with a band of bold Chinese resistance fighters. Four years earlier, while still a student at Hong Kong University, Chia-chi was recruited by Kuang Yu Min (U.S.-born Mandopop star Wang Lee-hom), the dashing director of a student theater company, to appear in a patriotic play. Chia-chi's performance is so stirring that Kuang invites her to join the group on their next production: the real-life assassination of collaborator Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-wai). Smitten with the handsome Kuang, Chia-chi agrees, but the plot is as daring as it is dangerous. Impersonating the fashionable wife of a Chinese importer-exporter, Chia-chi is to befriend Mrs. Yee, seduce her husband and then lure him into the open so Kuang and his fellow fighters can murder him. The first attempt ends when the Yees suddenly decamp for Shanghai, but three years later, Kuang convinces Chia-chi to try again. This time the stakes are even higher: The group is now backed by a larger resistance movement that cares less about the welfare of individual agents, and Mr. Yee now works for the Wang government's secret service, torturing and murdering resistance fighters. To earn his trust, Chia-chi will have to go deeper into her role as the glamorous Mak Tai-tai than she ever imagined.
Like Chang's exquisitely crafted story, which she reworked for nearly 30 years before finally publishing it in 1979, Lee has perfectly captured the details, textures, sights and sounds of a China caught between East and West, occupied by an ancient enemy and quaking on the eve of an earth-shaking revolution. (Particularly evocative is the moment when a picture-palace screening of PENNY SERENADE is interrupted by a Japanese propaganda film.) And like Chang, Lee conveys all the irrationality and turmoil of the period through the increasingly conflicted psychology of its heroine, whose emotions lead the film directly to its devastating and wholly unexpected conclusion. It should be noted that the film fully earns its NC-17 rating with a carnal frankness that was conspicuously and somewhat tellingly missing from BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. Unlike Lee's bashful shepherds, the lovers of LUST, CAUTION grapple like wrestlers while exploring nearly every position in the Kama Sutra. The sex is explicit but hardly exploitative; it signals the abandonment through which Chia-chi will ultimately lose sight of herself. Quite rightly, this powerful, provocative film was awarded the Golden Lion for best picture at the 2007 Venice Film Festival. leave a comment --Ken Fox