Ang Lee doesn't direct movies according to fashion or the dictates of short attention spans. So leave it to the Taiwanese Oscar winner for Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to craft a Chinese-language film version of Eileen Chang's iconic short story and let it play out for 158 minutes. No matter. A whole world unfolds in those minutes, a fully realized world of Japanese-occupied Shanghai during World War II, of espionage and carnal power games. The film ts in 1938, when Wong Chia-Chi (Tang Wei), a student and aspiring actress, is recruited by the charismatic Kuang Yu Min (pop Wang Leehom) to act her most demanding role: seducer of Mr. Yee (Tony Leung). He's a Japanese collaborator these Chinese patriots want dead. It culminates in 1942, at a jewelry shop, where the once plain Wong Chia-Chi — now the epitome of fatal allure — is about to fulfill her mission. In between, Lee reveals a deft design of politics and betrayal that finds a perfect parallel in the seemingly frivolous mah-jongg games Mrs. Yee (canny Joan Chen never misses a trick) plays with her married lady friends, including her romantic rival. There are no wasted motions. Exquisite beauty and barbarous intent are all caught in the lens of the great cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. Lee, working with an intricate script by Wang Hui Ling and James Schamus, keeps us constantly off balance. Much has been made of the NC-17 sex scenes. For the reliably idiotic ratings board, it all comes down to pubic hair and pelvic thrusts. For Lee, it goes deeper, into areas of control. Yee approaches sex with the sadistic relish he'd use to torture a suspect, while Wong Chia-Chi acts the role of subservient vessel. When they both drop the masks and yield to grander passions, the effect is devastating. The actors deserve the highest praise. Leung goes places he's never been before as an actor. And newcomer Tang Wei gives a performance that will be talked about for years. Lee is a true master, and his potently erotic and suspenseful Lust, Caution casts a spell you won't want to break.
From The Archives Issue 399: July 7, 1983