Ang Lee: Trojan horseman sneaking transgression into three-handkerchief Oscar fodder, or neutering softie? In this corner, there’s the then-New York Times critic Nathan Lee’s infamous argument that Brokeback Mountain — a conventional melodrama of tragic longing that just happens to feature “spit-lubed buttsex” — constitutes a rare moment of equivalency between mainstream cinematic representations of gay and straight romance; in that corner, Lust, Caution, smacked with an NC-17 rating on the strength of a vigorous run through the first couple chapters of the Kama Sutra, some barely screencap-able glimpses, and a couple of lashes with a belt — though it’s the dominant partner that ends the movie with his eyes brimming with tears. As in Brokeback, Lee and his collaborators (including, here as elsewhere, screenwriters James Schamus and Wang Hui-Ling) have built a pedigreed short story up into a Ralph Bellamy of a period piece: forgettably handsome and sympathetic to a fault. Lee sends his audience home mourning an impossible love (two, actually) — the melting of her icy denouement the movie’s only significant deviation from its source author, the Shanghai-born, undertranslated Eileen Chang.
Chang is, in other ways, well served: her polished surfaces — which are, inevitably, façades — are mirrored in the film’s backlot avenues (the sets were among the most extensive and elaborate ever constructed for a Chinese film) and living room manners, from the opening scene, in which the clacking of mahjong tiles and cheery tabletalk hardly conceals the one-upsmanship of the players, diplomats’ wives in Japanese-occupied Shanghai circa 1942. “Mrs. Mai” (Tang Wei), the wife of a blackmarketeer, strikes numerous poses: her clandestine affair with her host’s husband, collaborationist Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), is itself the setup for a nationalist assassination plot. The film retains Chang’s compact time frame while elaborating the flashed-back backstory to reinforce the layers of playacting: Wang Jiazhi (Mai’s real name) and her compatriots began as a radical student dramatic group, with their sting on Yee another performance. Without drawing undue attention, Lee’s staging of sequences recalls amateur theatricals: half-costumed actors lounging backstage awaiting a cue, or striking the set at the production’s end. What’s her motivation? Lee answers with close-ups of his leading lady crying at the movies, and switching her peasant ponytail for Western curls when she’s in character.
Rare for the 40s, Wang’s apparently a Method actress, as her yielding to Yee’s bedroom imperialism becomes a kind of symbiosis, her immersion into her role marked by the sequence of positions assumed. Appropriately, it’s hard to tell where Wang ends and Tang — a relatively inexperienced unknown — begins. In a recurrent image, Wang leaves traces of her unblotted lipstick on the rims of glasses; Tang is suitably deferential and girlish in her scenes with Joan Chen (a supremely self-satisfied Mrs. Yee) and Leung. Leung, in a performance ideally tinted by audience familiarity with his soulful domestic megastardom, is in the mood for detonation, a loaded spring held in place by Brylcreem and sharp lapels — until Lee’s sensitivity dulls his brutal edge.
Paradoxically, though, if Lust, Caution becomes an at all edgy work it may be because of Lee’s safe-playing: the version approved for Chinese release was shorn of the thirty-some minutes of Leung and Tang’s sexual gymnastics. What kind of cataclysm might result from an entire nation searching for bootleg DVDs?