Ang Lee made his breakthrough movie, The Wedding Banquet, in 1993. And yet, from Crouching Tiger to Sense and Sensibility to Brokeback Mountain and The Ice Storm, you could say his career spans thousands of years. His latest, Lust, Caution, is decidedly an Ang Lee film: meticulous and intelligent, rife with themes, attentive to every carefully chosen word, and just missing something that feels like compelling human emotion.
That's good enough for an espionage melodrama like Lust, Caution, which takes place in Hong Kong and Japanese-occupied Shanghai during World War II. Its central figures are Miss Wang (Wei Tang), a college freshman who joins a politically minded acting company, and Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), a middle-aged Chinese man who collaborates with the Japanese to achieve power and live a more comfortable life.
Wang's actor friends, who are part of the resistance movement, decide to use their skills to infiltrate Yee's household. So Wang poses as the bored wife of a businessman, befriends Mrs. Yee (an unusually sanguine Joan Chen), and sets out to seduce the well-guarded Yee as a way to draw him into the open, where the actors can go all Shakespeare on his ass. (The first time they have to kill someone, it's harder than they rehearsed.) Their plot against Yee works, after a while, and leads to a startling climax, with consequences.
Lee's visual style in Lust, Caution is an intriguing hybrid: part old Hollywood, brisk and concise (think Casablanca); part neo-thriller, jittery and alert (think '70s and '80s "of the" movies, like Eye of the Needle, Day of the Jackal, Three Days of the Condor). His period detail is astonishing -- you can almost hear him shout "Action!" as he cues the extras for the street scenes -- and his precision camera captures every nuance.
How can one man hold so much in his head? That, I think, is Lee's particular and satisfying genius: His working vision as a filmmaker is sometimes more complex than what's up there on the screen. In Lust, Caution, he again explores the exigencies of love and sex, with a few superb graphic lovemaking scenes. He also re-engages themes of identify that are central to his canon. It's no surprise that novelist Eileen Chang's short story, about the nexus of art and life, intrigued him enough to adapt it.
I only wonder why his highly entertaining movie didn't actually move me. Did Lee's actors, so fluid on the surface, not have the chops -- or did his mastery of his medium not permit them the privilege of nuance? The drama's climax counts on leading actress Wei Tang's ability to make us wonder what her character is feeling, but nothing here is complex enough to support this turn of events. No matter, I suppose: I like Ang Lee's cinema and I liked Lust, Caution, for what it's worth. In Mandarin, with subtitles.