Watching Tony Leung Chiu Wai under the direction of Ang Lee in Lust, Caution is like seeing De Niro minus Scorsese or Klaus Kinski without his Herzog. Something’s simply missing in the midst of all that talent (regardless of how many NC-17 rated body parts are in full view). It certainly doesn’t help that the calculating Lee will never reach the heights of the visionary Wong Kar-wai, Leung’s most significant director. I was rooting for Lee through every tilt and pan, but I was also thinking, “What would Wong do?”
Lust, Caution, a story within a story set in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation of WWII, centers on a young, revolutionary theater actress named Wong Chia Chi (Wei Tang) who transforms herself into the worldly “Mrs. Mak” in order to seduce and assassinate a high-level, Japanese collaborator named Mr. Yee (Leung). The crux of the film is that Lee’s actors are playing characters playing society’s cruelly imposed roles. The innocent schoolgirl morphs into the cool vamp. The Chinese bureaucrat has become a Japanese yes-man. This same role-playing territory is tread in 2046, Wong’s sci-fi masterpiece, a sort of 2001: A Space Odyssey of the soul starring Wong’s muse, Leung, with several actors taking on more than one character in different storylines.
The themes of emotion sneaking up on you, not knowing how you feel until it’s too late, define both films. People go to the futuristic 2046 to retrieve lost memories but never come back; they end up stuck in a past they willingly sought. Lust, Caution begins with Wong Chia Chi as Mrs. Mak in a café reminiscing how her story began four years earlier. In fact, Wong Chia Chi and Mr. Yee—who long to escape the circumstances that will invariably destroy their relationship and ultimately their lives—could have stepped right off the train of Wong’s 2046.
I wish they had. Wong is a filmmaker who courts chaos, transferring his every unfiltered emotion directly to the screen, while Ang Lee is his polar opposite, substituting painterly images for true feeling. Wong views the dialogue in a script as nothing more than a jazzman’s notes and cinematography the kaleidoscopic images of fevered dreams. He’s able to effortlessly juggle music from a variety of genres and countries, from Italian opera to American pop. His movies are gorgeously messy artistic eruptions—a marked contrast to Lee, whose direction seems every bit as repressed as a Wong hero played by Leung. In Lust, Lee’s camerawork is highly restrained, downright respectful, the formally composed shots showing precisely what is necessary yet saying nothing. His dialogue is disciplined—nearly forced in some scenes, especially involving the mahjong-playing women. The soaring, operatic score is beautifully lush yet empty. This is Hollywood Filmmaking 101. Where Wong burns with passion, Lee simply fizzles under the weight of perfectionism. In adapting his source material, a short story, for the screen, Lee chose to walk the same path of repressed emotion as Wong Kar-wai’s 2046—even employing the same lead actor—with far lesser results.
Lee will never be Wong, and that’s O.K. Brokeback Mountain succeeded because it didn’t need a Wong at its helm—it simply required a competent director to get out of the way of the script. But Lust is no gay western. It’s a film with intricate layers that only a risk-taking master could peel away. The tension between Wong’s freewheeling style and the tales of repression he chooses to tell are what set his films ablaze. His movies are fireworks raining down on Chekhovian characters, the filmmaking itself speaking for their mute inner life;Lee is a skilled workhorse, but he’s afraid to step over the line of acceptable narrative filmmaking conventions (NC-17 notwithstanding). It’s as if Wong has elevated Russian roulette to an art form while his Lee has been busy mastering the dutiful wives’ mahjong. Lee’s Chinese-language film could have used a bit of this Wong Kar-wai luck. Lust, Caution is a frustratingly capable art film, but also a missed masterpiece, a study in what could have been.
Brooklyn-based writer Lauren Wissot is the publisher of the blog Beyond the Green Door, the author of the memoir Under My Master’s Wings, and a contributor to The Reeler. This is her first piece for The House Next Door.