Thursday, August 7, 2008

Queue It Up: Lust, Caution

[In relation to the “Sex & Cinema” post, The Cooler offers the following review, written upon the film’s release in the author’s pre-blog era.]

The movie megaset has been around since D.W. Griffith ordered the replication of the Great Wall of Babylon for his 1916 epic Intolerance. But in the little more than a decade since James Cameron’s Titanic took set construction to greater heights (not to mention depths) than it had ever known, brick-and-mortar set creation has become something of a lost art, at least on the large scale. Massive sets these days are done on computer. It’s cheaper, more forgiving and, in the minds of some moviemakers, it’s more magnificent too. But in his latest film, set in Japanese-occupied China during World War II, director Ang Lee revitalizes the old-school megaset to brilliant effect. Lust, Caution frequently unfolds in the smallest of spaces, but many of its exteriors were shot amidst a full-scale reconstructed neighborhood reported to be three blocks long, with more than 180 storefronts.

I mention this not to compare Lee’s small though lengthy film with any recent or distant epics. At a reported budget of $15 million, Lust, Caution was $185 million cheaper to produce than Titanic; financially they aren’t in the same ocean. But like a designer on the home-improvement show Trading Spaces, Lee knows how to make his money count, because cinematically Lust, Caution is extravagant. The movie’s Shanghai set isn’t just big, it’s actually grand. And that’s what distinguishes Lust, Caution from so many other films these days that look expensive but not experienced. Lee’s sets feel lived-in and are the main reason his film is so transportive – because unlike shots of Manhattan’s Five Points in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 bloodbath Gangs Of New York, for example, you don’t have to squint your eyes to make believe.

The miraculous thing though isn’t the Shanghai set itself but that Lee went to such extraordinary lengths for a movie that by no means required them. Lust, Caution is based on a story by Eileen Chang that was adapted for the screen by James Schamus. It tells the tale of Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei), a Chinese college girl from peasant stock who becomes an undercover agent in a revolutionist attempt to assassinate an officer named Yee (Tony Leung). To get close to Yee, Wong will assume the alias of Mrs. Mak and endure countless mah-jongg games in a gossipy circle of officers’ wives. She will also learn – the hard and unpleasant way – the art of pleasing a man (the theory being that the only way to get close enough to kill Yee is to let him get as close to Mak as he wants). A financially-strapped or lazy filmmaker would be content with these interiors and make this picture without the plot ever venturing outdoors. But to our delight, the thoughtful Lee recognizes that the relationship between Yee and Mak is as much about the world they run from as the place the run to.

Still, it’s difficult to talk about this movie any further without going indoors. The nucleus of Lust, Caution is the privacy of the bedroom, where Lee’s film earns an NC-17 rating for a collection of sex scenes that are forceful by more than one definition of the word. Long in length and short on shyness, these sweaty amorous interludes don’t show us everything, but they show so much that what we don’t see is somewhat distracting. (Put it this way: if these actors aren’t in fact having sex, Mr. Leung can teach David Copperfield a thing or two about the art of making stuff disappear.) The knee-jerk reaction to scenes like these, which if you spotted on Cinemax at midnight you’d dismiss as soft porn, is to assume their function is to shock or titillate. But here the frankness and duration of the sex sequences serves a deeper purpose: advancing the plot.

Truth be told, the sex scenes are the plot. Lust, Caution unfolds in an era where, despite what the song says, there’s no such thing as “just a kiss” and where a sigh is never just a sigh. And so, appropriately enough, this film stands in direct contrast with movies released in the era it portrays – Casablanca (1942) or Double Indemnity (1944), for example – that were all lust and no thrust. Here, Mak and Yee barely say a word to one another outside the bedroom and say even less under, or more often over, the sheets. But that doesn’t mean they don’t communicate. Far from it. In unblinking gazes, caresses, grips and moans, Mak and Yee participate in pages of wordless dialogue. And reading between the lines is rarely such a thrill.

To all those who see it, Lust, Caution will be remembered less for its eroticism than for its intensity, though admittedly those elements often overlap. Leung is brooding, mysterious, tender, dangerous and vulnerable. It’s a tremendous performance. And yet it’s eclipsed by that of Wei, who is beyond phenomenal. Hers is a role that requires a complete transformation from an uncertain child to an unusually confident young woman, and Wei makes this maturation with the utmost grace. When near the end of the film Lee flashes back from the hardened covert agent to a shot of the naïve college student she was before, the full scope of the metamorphosis is so overwhelming that I momentarily doubted that one actress had handled the entire part. But it’s Wei through and through.

Sadly, I suspect Lust, Caution will put many moviegoers through and through too much. The story spans just four years but the movie takes almost 160 minutes, and that’s a lot of mah-jongg. If you thought Brokeback Mountain was overly patient, Lust, Caution will make Lee’s previous film feel like Speed. But what’s the rush? There isn’t a single scene from the frontlines of any battleground and yet Lust, Caution immerses us into its World War II setting as well any vast historical epic, with Alexandre Desplat’s score rising and falling in all the right places. In moments, this is filmmaking at its finest and most unflinching, whether probing the psychology of its characters through sex or revealing the horror of violence through a brawl that’s as visceral as any I’ve ever seen.

It’s a shame that many who won’t see this movie will call it Lee’s “soft porn” picture, a term that’s as insultingly reductive as categorizing Brokeback Mountain as the “gay cowboy” movie. What these films have in common, beyond the outrage they instill in prudes, is an astute awareness of the emotional complexity of sex. If all you see in these sex scenes is intercourse, you’re not watching closely enough. The good news is, you get to watch again.

[“Queue It Up” is a series of sporadic recommendations of often overlooked movies for your Netflix queue.]

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