'Lust, Caution's' Open Hearts Aren't For Closed Minds

Tang Wei, left, and Tony Leung star in Ang Lee's latest film on clandestine love, which bares a battle between two wills in Japanese-occupied Shanghai during World War II.
Tang Wei, left, and Tony Leung star in Ang Lee's latest film on clandestine love, which bares a battle between two wills in Japanese-occupied Shanghai during World War II. (By Chan Kam Chuen -- Focus Features)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 5, 2007

"Lust, Caution," a "romance noir" set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, makes a powerful case for love as a transcendental force that draws people together, no matter how perverse audiences may deem their relationship.

Director Ang Lee has created an affecting, minor-key ode to love, in the tradition of films such as "The Night Porter," "Dance With a Stranger," "M. Butterfly" and "Damage." In these dramas, the partners are morally questionable; their love becomes their only grace note. The tighter the outside world closes around them, the more they cling to one another, like victims falling together from a great height. And we are torturously caught up in this, feeling pity and empathy rather than condemnation.

Adapted from a short story by Shanghai-born Eileen Chang, who lived through (and set several novels in) this 1940s backdrop, the movie unfolds like a political thriller. But its real drama occurs within the hearts of two flawed people, drawn to each other despite a wartime atmosphere that casts them as adversaries. Their sadomasochistic sexual liaisons -- graphically depicted -- initially alarm us. But we come to understand how this aggressive behavior, seemingly laced with hatred and contempt, belies a growing emotional connection.

The 50ish Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) is the ruthless, debonair head of security for the collaborative Chinese government. Wang Chia-chih (Tang Wei) is a patriotic revolutionary in her 20s; she has drawn the short straw in her circle of student radicals to seduce and lure him into a deadly trap. When the inevitable affair takes place, she learns she has become entangled with a sadist whose brutal bedroom manner hides a tormented tenderness. Touched instead of hardened against him, she finds herself falling in love, and caught in a game of double deception -- against Yee and her compatriots.

In spite of the NC-17 rating, Lee makes lyrical if disconcerting poetry of their cruelly drawn affair; the director did something similar when he examined a clandestine love tinged with bitterness and regret in "Brokeback Mountain." In this world of Mahjong parlors and opium dens, where survival is the only virtue, the lovers are finding their own blissful asylum. And we're oddly moved by their hermetically sealed strength of purpose.

In a film where casting is a vital component in the edgy equation, Leung and Tang make a picturesque and dramatically compelling couple. Leung, best known as a swoony icon in art house romances such as "2046" and "In the Mood for Love," is cast wonderfully against type. Suddenly his delicate, almost feminine features are fraught with menace. And Tang, who makes her debut, firmly establishes herself as a softly persuasive screen presence for the future. In "Lust, Caution," her combination of grim purpose and almost ethereal tenderness bring a much needed personal dimension to the tragedy.

While the sexual scenes between them are explicit, they are also sensitively portrayed. It is the sweaty sensuality of their thrusting bodies, and the seemingly endless intensity, that makes these encounters seem so licentious, not the sex itself. The filmmakers, including screenwriters James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang, are showing us the battle between two wills, not a pornographic peep show. (This subtle distinction has eluded the ratings board of the Motion Picture Association, which recently gave an R rating to "The Heartbreak Kid," a comedy that makes sight gags out of forceful, graphic sex, children snorting cocaine and even bestiality.) That something so pure as love can grow in such unseeming circumstances is testament to the one emotional state that binds most -- if not all -- of us.

Lust, Caution (157 minutes at Landmark's Bethesda Row) is rated NC-17 for explicit sexuality. In Mandarin Chinese with subtitles.

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