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In the mood for Lust

Ang Lee goes NC-17
By PETER KEOUGH  |  October 3, 2007
3.0 3.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Lust, Caution

Lust, Caution | Directed by Ang Lee | Written by James Schamus and Wang Hui Ling based on the story by Eileen Chang | With Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Tang Wei, Joan Chen, Wang Leehom, Tou Chung Hua, Chu Chih-Ying, and Kao Ying Hsuan | Focus Features | Mandarin | 158 minutes

Ang time: Lee approaches Lust with Caution. By Peter Keough

During one of the sex scenes that have earned Ang Lee’s adaptation of Eileen Chang’s short story its notoriety (and its NC-17 rating), I had to ask myself: how did that foot get there? And: whose foot is it? Maybe not the kind of questions the director was hoping for. Despite Lee’s insistence that these painful-looking encounters are necessary for the story and the characterizations, I have my doubts.

That said, what remains is a worthy variation on Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000), with less mood and love but with the addition of sex and violence and the Japanese Imperial Army. Both films are set in densely atmospheric and detailed periods: In the Mood in 1962 Hong Kong; Lust in Hong Kong and Shanghai during the war with Japan. And Tony Leung Chiu-Wai stars in both, playing similar characters in similar situations. In Lust, as in In the Mood, he’s utterly repressed and increasingly suspicious, as Mr. Yee, head of the secret police that’s sniffing out resistance to the Japanese-imposed Chinese puppet government. In In the Mood, he suspects his wife is cheating on him. In Lust, he believes everyone in China is out to assassinate him. In In the Mood, he responds with a role-playing game with the woman whose spouse he suspects may be sleeping with his wife. In Lust, when he’s not torturing prisoners off screen, he engages in an S&M role-playing game with a woman who he suspects is working with a cabal of conspirators out to kill him.

As indeed she is. The film’s circular narrative begins in Shanghai in 1942, as Mrs. Mak (Tang Wei) places a call to her colleagues, who load up their handguns and set off on a mission. A perfect time for her to flash back to where all the trouble started, as-yet-unoccupied Hong Kong in 1938, when Mrs. Mak was the naive college student Wong Chia Chi. She’s joined the dramatics society, which, led by firebrand classmate Kuang Yu Min (Wang Leehom), has abandoned a “bourgeois” production of A Doll’s House for a jingoistic play meant to arouse patriotism in the complacent citizenry.

The show’s a hit and so is Wong, but Kuang, like many actors before and since, wants more than make-believe heroics. He’s heard that Yee is in town, and he recasts the college acting troupe into an assassination squad, inventing roles and backstories in order to infiltrate Yee’s security and do him in. So Wong becomes Mrs. Mak, wife of a local businessman. Ingratiating herself with the sublimely selfish and superficial Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen), she begins her seduction of the target. The crucial moment arrives. “This is not a rehearsal!” announces Kuang. But in fact it is, as Yee slips away, back to Shanghai. And so, too, does Wong, leading a life of poverty in her war-benighted home town until Kuang re-enters her life three years later and gives her a second chance at the role of a lifetime.

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