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Much has been written about the several explicit—yet downright cold and violent—scenes depicting the affair between the two lead characters in Ang Lee’s latest film Lust, Caution that earned the work a rating of No Children Under the Age of Seventeen (or in the film world, the highly uncommercial NC-17). Yet, those scenes aside, to me, one of the most startlingly intense moments happens about an hour and ten minutes into the picture when a group of university students led by Kuang Yu who have gone undercover as part of the Chinese resistance in 1938 to bring down top Japanese collaborators in the government discover that their cover is blown. Feeling they have no choice, as a group they impulsively decide to kill a man who has found them out in one of the longest and most brutal yet excruciatingly realistic killings that has ever found its way onscreen. It’s a chilling wakeup call to an audience that has by now probably begun to fight the urge to nod off in this exquisitely crafted yet overly long adaptation of Eileen Chang’s story that centers on Wong Chia Chi (a terrific Wei Tang) who, being the most talented natural stars in her university’s political theatre group, becomes the star of their far deadlier production with the resistance. Soon she catches the eye of Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) a married government official who has been promoted to a high rank in the collaborationist government, and decides, with little to no prodding that she will hook him and become his mistress with the ultimate goal of helping the group assassinate Yee.
Sense and Sensibility and Brokeback Mountain director Ang Lee earned the 2007 Venice Film Festival Golden Lion for Lust, Caution but the ever humble director donated the hefty monetary sum to younger directors and stars in his homeland to promote excellence in filmmaking (IMDb). While the film was speculated to become a sure thing for a Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination, it was rejected under two technical disqualifications including the first that for a Taiwan entry there was an insufficient number of Taiwanese working on the film (IMDb) and also because too much domestic money was applied to Lust, Caution due to the film’s co-writer and longtime Lee producer and head of the film’s studio Focus Features, James Schamus.
As the film evolves into a unrelenting emotional drama when Wong and Yee embark on a an affair that takes a far more sinister turn as Yee unveils his true nature as a tyrannically violent sadist (that may have been a symbolic and metaphorical decision from author Chang), it becomes a litmus test on how much a viewer can tolerate. Although Schamus and his studio completely stood by the film’s most notorious sex scenes (which were so explicit that the R rated version is not just one but nine minutes shorter than the original), which admittedly do grow a bit gratuitous when say two would have sufficed rather than the included half a dozen, the film’s running time and slow pace bogs it down from greatness to slightly above average.
While I’ll never look at the formerly swoon-worthy Leung (star of In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express and countless others) in quite the same way again, the real star of the picture is newcomer Wei Tang whom IMDb reports beat out 10,000 actresses for the lead role. Tang, who more than holds her own opposite Leung and costar, the legendary Joan Chen as Mrs. Yee is brave and unforgettable in an unspeakably difficult role and will hopefully be given the chance to show her undeniable range in more films i the future.