Ang Lee busts a nut with Lust, Caution: All the ball sacks, pubes, and sweaty armpit hair tastefully relegated to Brokeback Mountain‘s off-screen space are propped front and center in this WWII-set espionage thriller, whose lustful sex scenes and enthralling performances enliven its otherwise cautious storytelling. Watching Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) and “Mrs. Mak” (Tang Wei) go at it, seemingly inspired by the Kama Sutra, you’d think they wanted to show Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist how it’s really done. Lee himself seems to want to butt-fuck Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, slightly amending that film’s sketchy sexual politics but flattening its stirring socio-cultural purview, ending up similarly half-cocked.
Set largely in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation of the city, Lust, Caution doesn’t lack for cultural specificity though it fails to sufficiently dramatize the motivating impulses of its guerrilla freedom fighters. Mrs. Mak ingratiates herself into the inner circle of Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen), ingeniously allowing the clink of mahjong pieces to identify her as an idle bourgeois creature. Her real name is Wong Chia Chi, plucked from the stage of a Hong Kong theater by the members of a patriotic drama society, and her ambition is to help this radical group assassinate Mr. Yee, a Japanese collaborator whose crimes against his homeland are as unelaborated as Wong’s moral and creative inspirations.
In spite of such vagueness—maybe because of it—Lust, Caution builds excitingly to Mr. Yee and Wong’s first sexual encounter, a brutal, masochistic tour-de-force delayed for a number of years after Mr. Yee unexpectedly moves to Shanghai and whose rehearsal necessitates the loss of Wong’s virginity to one of her cohorts. Until now, there’s no seriousness to Wong’s pursuit of Mr. Yee, but the horror of having popped her cherry without the pleasure of seeing this traitor bleed in return both supercharges the woman and the film itself. Years later, while living in an impoverished Shanghai, Kuang Yu Min (Wang Leehom) comes to Wong with news that they’ve located Mr. Yee and the woman is, again, ready for her close-up.
Similar to Brokeback Mountain being a retreat for Ennis and Jack from the danger zone of the straight world, Lust, Caution has Wong returning, over and over again, to the comfort of movie houses, where the flicker of celluloid illuminates her perpetually teary face. (In a surprisingly funny scene, an American movie is interrupted by a newsreel that boasts of the country’s resistance to Western influences, at which point Wong rolls her eyes and heads for the door.) What her affection for the movies signifies is never clear (perhaps it’s only meant as a convenient contrast to Mr. Yee’s fear of the dark), but when Wong meets Kuang inside a theater to give him information about Mr. Yee’s whereabouts, her frustration suggests the pain of someone missing out on the communal rapture of film-going. Which is to say, love.
Wong and Mr. Yee’s sexual trysts give Lust, Caution an interesting psychological nuance. Wong describes in alarming detail Mr. Yee’s poisonous effect on her soul to Kuang and their superior, a man whose wife and children where killed by the blue-blooded thug. Her ferocious agency is not something the men in the room can handle, but she isn’t only lashing out against them for lecturing her on loyalty and putting off their attack on Mr. Yee. Underscoring her rage is a sense that she has fallen for the paranoid Mr. Yee, which seems to stem from a perverse place of sympathy. Mr. Yee gives Wong no reason to love him, but Tang, an actress with a great future, gives haunting expression to Wong’s conflictions and sense of entrapment, even as the film begins to give pathetic leverage to the notion that diamonds are a girl’s best friend.