The title of Ang Lee's Lust, Caution sums up everything we can expect from this disappointing wartime thriller: the film contains lust, and it contains caution, but there's an awful lot more of the latter than the former. Given how much attention the picture's sex scenes have been receiving over the past few months, it comes as something of a surprise to report that there are only a handful of such moments in its long running time, and they're hardly the stuff of taboo-breaking legend. Nevertheless, the erotic intensity of these sequences has forced Lee to cut the film in his native China, while it has received a restrictive NC-17 rating in the United States (at the same time, movies in which people are tortured to death routinely pass with an R rating, but that's a rant for another day). This is a shame, because the sex in Lust, Caution is an integral part of the film, and it also marks the point where this sleepy picture briefly springs into passionate life.
Lust, Caution is set in Shanghai and Hong Kong during the brutal Japanese occupation, and it centres on a complex espionage and assassination plot in which Wong Chia Chi (the dazzling newcomer Tang Wei) is a central figure. In 1938, Wong was just an ordinary teenager with a natural aptitude for acting, which led her to a revolutionary theatre troupe aimed at staging propaganda plays ahead of the forthcoming war. Their plays are a great success, but fellow student Kuang (Lee-Hom Wang) thinks there's more that they can do for their country. He has heard about a Chinese official named Mr Yee (Tony Leung) who has been collaborating for the Japanese, and he persuades the group to do their patriotic duty by killing this traitor. So begins a tale which spans the next four years; posing as well-to-do wife Mrs Mak, Wong inveigles herself into the Yees' inner circle, partaking in shopping trips and mah-jongg games with Mrs Yee (a pitch-perfect Joan Chen), and before too long she has won Mr Yee's heart. This narrative bears a broad similarity to last year's Black Book, in which Carice van Houten played a double agent sleeping with the enemy, but that picture had a way of demanding our attention and making us experience the fear inherent in the central character's situation – a situation where discovery is death – and that's something Lust, Caution fails to do.
For the first hour or so, Lust, Caution does manage to cast something of a spell over the viewer. The superb production design helps to draw us into a convincing recreation of 1940's China, and Lee's direction is as classy and elegant as we have come to expect. However, as the film progressed I started to feel a little restless, with the slow-moving narrative never quite hitting the tension-filled high points that a story of this nature surely demands. The main reason for this is the fact that Lust, Caution runs for an absurd 158 minutes. That's about twenty minutes longer than any of Lee's previous films, and boy does it feel like it. It's never quite boring, exactly, but the film constantly delivers scene after scene from which a sharper editor would have gleamed extra layers of suspense and excitement, and instead of exerting a tighter grip on the emotions as Wong gets deeper into her double life, the film has a tendency to dissipate.
Things liven up, in more ways than one, when sex enters the equation. The first coupling between Wong and Yee is a near-rape, as he flings her to the bed like a rag doll and bounds her wrists with his belt; but in their later sexual encounters a deeper tenderness and feeling emerges, with Yee revealing something of the human being under the surface of this violent man. It's a role quite unlike any Tony Leung has been asked to play before, and the performance he gives is one befitting his status as one of the world's finest actors. It's a fabulously controlled piece of acting which exudes both charm and menace, and yet allows us glimpses of his character's soul. Lust, Caution's real trump card, however, is Tang Wei, a first-time actress discovered after a Scarlett O'Hara-style search in which ten thousand women were auditioned. She is a beautiful and intriguing actress, who carries the bulk of the film on her tender shoulders and she handles this demanding role with astonishing grace. Lee has unearthed a true movie star.
These two actors are on outstanding form individually, and they also share a rich chemistry, but the film never quite capitalises on this pairing. Lust, Caution does contain some brilliant moments; I loved the staging of Wong's play, or the scene in which she sings to Mr Yee (a scene as erotically charged as any of the sexual ones), and there's a wonderfully Hitchcockian sequence in which Wong's collaborators attempt to murder a man who just won't die. Aside from the sex, these are the sole occasions in which Lust, Caution generates any heat, though, and after making such a perfect job of translating Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain to the screen, Lee's adaption of Eileen Chang's short story is a huge letdown. The narrative is simply too slim to take the weight of this epic running time, and the urgency of the final scenes comes too late to drag us back into a story which has been told at such an unrewarding and cautious pace.