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Moriarty Gets Lost In LUST, CAUTION!

Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here. I can honestly say that I’ve been a fan of Ang Lee’s work since his first film in 1992. PUSHING HANDS was a warm, human little film that blended social commentary, martial arts, and family comedy with a deft touch. Obviously a big part of the success of that film was the screenplay by James Schamus, and to some extent, if you’re a fan of Lee’s work, you are also a fan of Schamus. The two of them have enjoyed a fairly amazing collaboration over the last fifteen years, working in artistic harmony to create a diverse run of movies that include THE WEDDING BANQUET, EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN, THE ICE STORM, RIDE WITH THE DEVIL, CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON, and the much-maligned HULK. It’s one of those weird flukes that Ang Lee finally won his Oscar for Best Director, it was for one of the few films of his that Schamus did not write. Today’s limited release of LUST, CAUTION sees the two of them reunited, and the result is a somber, fascinating movie that could easily be seen as an Asian counterpart to Verhoeven’s BLACK BOOK last year. Adapted from the novella by Eileen Chang, this is the story of a group of students in WWII-era Shanghai who decide to use their theatrical training to assassinate a high-ranking enemy collaborator. Tony Leung, one of the greatest movie stars working in the Chinese film industry today, plays Mr. Yee, the government official who the students target, while newcomer Wei Tang makes a devastating debut as Wang Jiazhi, the student who is the key to the entire plan. As one might guess from the film’s NC-17 rating, they set a honey trap for Mr. Yee, a simple-enough plan that becomes complicated when reality and pretend become confused. Chang’s original story is a spare, affecting piece of work that is notable for the precision of its language and for the attention to detail. Little surprise she gets everything right since much of this was drawn from her real life. She was a student in Hong Kong when the Pacific war began, forcing her to move back to Shanghai. She married a man who served in the collaborationist government who ended up having an affair and abandoning her, which freed her up to flee back to Hong Kong and, eventually, to America, where she published most of her work. Just reading the Chang story, you can see why Ang Lee would be drawn to it as source material. Thanks to the textured writing and the sophisticated understanding Chang had of politics both national and personal at the time, this slight story seems rich with subtext. At heart, this appears to be a story about what happens to you over time when you play a role for so long, so completely. At what point do your experiences become real? They’re happening to you... to the character you’re playing... but that doesn’t make them any less real. Wei Tang is quietly affecting in every scene of the film, but her work has a cumulative effect that I found sort of devastating. She makes the choices that most profoundly affect her with a sort of reckless abandon, but once she makes the choice, she lives with it. It’s impossible to say who sacrifices the most for the cause that they’ve chosen out of all the students, but Wang Jiazhi vanishes into the role she’s playing, this importer’s wife with black market connections. She lives rich, wearing the best of everything, insinuating herself into the confidence of Mr. Yee’s wife and her circle of friends. They all meet over mah-jongg, and those scenes are wonderfully played, much of it right out of Chang’s novella, this savage circle of sharp-tongued gossips all married to powerful men, all trading all the secrets they know as currency over their game. One of the reasons the film runs 2 hours 40 minutes is because Lee allows these observational scenes play out. I think he does that really well in all his films… setting up sequences that are all about behavior, all character. It’s sort of the cinematic equivalent to what Tom Wolfe was doing in BONFIRE or what Scorsese’s doing in AGE OF INNOCENCE. It’s that sort of societal anthropology, showing what happens to lives that get caught up in these larger social forces. It could only happen at the exact moment the story is set... it’s the result of social friction finally causing a spark. And, oh, what a spark. Tony Leung and Wei Tang join that list of provocateurs over the years in film who push the sexual mainstream envelope, like Brando and Schneider or Rourke and Basinger or Sutherland and Christie. It reminded me a lot of the way Phil Kaufman shoots his sex scenes in UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS and HENRY & JUNE. It’s not graphic... but it’s explicit. It’s about the way these people share intimacy. If you don’t see these moments... if you aren’t right there between them... then you don’t understand the big moment in the movie. No, I’m not going to spoil it. I’ll just say that there’s a reason LUST CAUTION has always sparked debate regarding this one thing that Wang Chia-chih does. Actually, you could debate whether it’s Wang Chia-chih who does it or if it’s Mai Tai-tai, the role she’s been playing. The results are drastic, inevitable, but is there really any other choice she could have made in that moment? She is transformed by what she’s been playing. The thing I find even more provocative is what the movie says about Mr. Yee. Leung’s work here is exceptional, and in the film’s final moments, I think he does some of his best work. Ever. It’s his REMAINS OF THE DAY, the film where he gets to play internal and guarded and yet, somehow, split wide open in almost every moment onscreen. Mr. Yee is a bundle of longing, a raw nerve of suppressed desire. And the way he handles this collision with Mai Tai-Tai defines who he truly is. It’s quietly savage writing, and the fury of Eileen Chang’s writing is intact in the script that Schamus co-wrote with Wang Hui Ling. The film was impeccably shot by Rodrigo Pietro, who is one of those absolutely reliable craftsmen, film after film, doing strong, stylish work. BABEL, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, ALEXANDER, 21 GRAMS, 25th HOUR, 8 MILE... he’s been a key player in some incredibly strong visual films, and his work here is rich and burnished, a memory piece that occasionally burns extra-bright, like it’s about to burn through the emulsion. Alexandre Desplat’s score is lush and heartbreaking as well. I never felt the film’s length... out of this year’s “long movies” (anything over two and a half hours), this was one of the easiest sits. It’s engrossing and the film’s slow fuse really made it powerful when it finally ignites. I think this is another impressive effort by Ang Lee, and it makes me glad he’s managed to stay so true to his own voice, so strong in terms of how he approaches material, even after being in the studio system so completely. He’s maintained his identity from day one, and he’s continued to make films that not only explain and explore his own culture but that invite everyone else in as well.


Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles

Readers Talkback
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  • Oct. 5, 2007, 3:19 a.m. CST

    great

    by Chumkid

    good one!

  • Oct. 5, 2007, 3:24 a.m. CST

    Joan Chen

    by Kal Reeve

    I believe Joan Chen is in this film. And I must declare, screaming from the mountain tops, that she is perhaps the most beautiful woman of modern cinema. And I look forward to this film.

  • Oct. 5, 2007, 3:25 a.m. CST

    More of this

    by ButtfuckZydeco

    little less of Sex and the City.

  • Oct. 5, 2007, 3:25 a.m. CST

    If there is one thing you can say about Moriarty

    by IndustryKiller!

    It's that the mother fucker can write an eloquent review. I was actually thinking about skipping this in theaters given the mixed things i had heard as of late and the shameful amount of films I have yet to see (Into the Wild, Jesse James, Once, etc.) but now I feel I've gotta catch this. I suppose it's only right given that Lee's last film is probably one of my favorites of all time. Thanks alot Mori, you bastard.

  • Oct. 5, 2007, 3:29 a.m. CST

    You call that eloquent?

    by Chumkid

    Well, I guess that someone like you would consider such horrible writing eloquent. After all, you want to see Into The Wild.

  • Oct. 5, 2007, 3:59 a.m. CST

    In other news

    by ButtfuckZydeco

    Strippers earnings vary 2:1, depending on where they are in their monthly cycle:<p> http://tinyurl.com/2b2kuw <p> a little AICN goes down smooth with a MarginalRevolution chaser.

  • Oct. 5, 2007, 4:11 a.m. CST

    "split wide open in almost every moment onscreen"

    by meatygoodness

    Sweet. Gotta get me tickets for this.

  • Oct. 5, 2007, 6:58 a.m. CST

    Tony Leung finally Oscar-nominated?

    by MaxTheSilent

    Hopefully. He's simply one of the great actors of our time. I've known that for about 15 years!

  • Oct. 5, 2007, 7:39 a.m. CST

    Is there a giant bucket of poo?

    by Garbageman33

    You know, seeing as how it's the Asian version of Black Book and all. Seriously, I'm looking forward to this. I've liked almost everything Ang Lee has done. Even parts of the Hulk. Namely, the parts without Jennifer Connelly. I'm so tired of seeing her play the same role the same way. Someone needs to dump a giant bucket of poo on her head.

  • Oct. 5, 2007, 8:57 a.m. CST

    Bukkake?

    by DerLanghaarige

  • Oct. 5, 2007, 9:02 a.m. CST

    Hot Asian chick geting banged

    by Osmosis Jones

    = must see.

  • Oct. 5, 2007, 10:06 a.m. CST

    Fantastic review, Perfesser

    by ErnieAnderson

    Unfortunately, due to other work commitments, I missed the screening of this one this morning.<p> Can't wait to see another great Leung performance, though. He was phenomenal in CONFESSION OF PAIN.

  • Oct. 5, 2007, 12:19 p.m. CST

    Didn't Lee win for Crouching Tiger?

    by Barry Egan

    I thought he was a 2 time winner for that and Brokeback.

  • Oct. 5, 2007, 1:39 p.m. CST

    Crouching Tiger won best foreign film

    by Garbageman33

    But they gave director to some other schmo. Probably the guy who did American Beauty.

  • Oct. 5, 2007, 2:16 p.m. CST

    66% on Tomatometer.

    by Christopher3

    I'll watch it at double-speed on DVD.

  • Oct. 5, 2007, 2:41 p.m. CST

    crouching lady, hidden bj

    by ironic_name

  • Oct. 5, 2007, 4:57 p.m. CST

    Great review Mori

    by Gwai Lo

    As you probably know I didn't agree with it 100%, but you brought up a lot of good points that changed my mind on a few things while I was reading it. Which is what a good review should do. I think I like the movie more in hindsight than I did while watching it.

  • Oct. 5, 2007, 6:34 p.m. CST

    nice non-spoiler review

    by CherryValance

    I desperately want to talk about this movie but I more desperately want everyone to see it without knowing too much.</p> I have to say though, I think it might be better than Brokeback Mountain, maybe not The Ice Storm. I need to let it sit for a while. And I definitely think it's the best film of it's genre that I've ever seen. I thought Tony Leung's performance was top notch. Of the movies I've seen this year I do think it's the best, meaning better than Eastern Promises, which I thought rocked hard. So everyone has to see both of them. Go right now. Shoo.

  • Oct. 5, 2007, 6:47 p.m. CST

    Tony Leung needs some academy lovin'!!!

    by the_man_from_Rio

    at least a nomination, to give daniel day lewis a run for oscar pool money. i'm not so sure i understand the Remains of the day analogy, but that could be a new catchphrase. speaking of academy awards, Brazil's choice was a film that literally translated is called "the year my parents went out on vacation" about a boy, who by a stream of events ends up living with an old jewish man while his parents are on exile from the Brazilian dictatorship, all this against the backdrop of Brazil winning the 1970 World cup. a true coming of age story filled with soccer, discovery of love and hate, religion and subversion. it's a true contender for next year's best foreign film award, but it has to be nominated in the top five first...does lust,caution fall in the same category, or what, does anyone know?

  • Oct. 5, 2007, 7:45 p.m. CST

    Tony Leung is awesome.

    by veritasses

    but there's zero chance he gets an Oscar.

  • Oct. 5, 2007, 8:46 p.m. CST

    Luckily (or not) smellovision hasn't been invented

    by theonecalledshoe

    Al Gore is persisting at this while we all do the TB thing.

  • Oct. 5, 2007, 9:55 p.m. CST

    ANG LEE oscars

    by Leafy McPlantsalot

    Steven Soderberg won for traffic the year crouching tiger was up. He won cause he was double nominated.

  • Oct. 5, 2007, 10:22 p.m. CST

    This film has already been limited released

    by conniebrean1

    This has been playing in NY for the last week. Is it expanding to wide now, or just more select cities?

  • Oct. 6, 2007, 9:37 a.m. CST

    Bananna Hammock

    by DerLanghaarige

    The talkback is that old that it got already pushed from the first page.

  • Oct. 6, 2007, 1:44 p.m. CST

    Joan Chen

    by Itchy

    That stupid movie she made with Anne Heche (The Wild Side) was great. Anne Heche was totally chowing her box and it wasn't faked and she loved it. Mmmmmmm. I love me some spicy fortune cookie nookie.

  • Oct. 6, 2007, 7:01 p.m. CST

    I found it uneven.

    by Mostholy

    Tony Leung is great, as is Tang Wei. But, to steal from pretty much every other review of the film, it should've been called Caution, Lust. And, while explicit, the sex scenes didn't work for me, for reasons I can't really talk about unless you've seen the film. (http://www.ghostinthemachine.net/004978.html)

  • Oct. 7, 2007, 11:04 a.m. CST

    HULK is far and away the best comic book adaptation

    by dr sauch

    True story. I will NOT be seeing the Ed Norton fiasco currently in production. Eric Bana IS Bruce Banner, the script makes you think about more than crushing cars and green monsters. No one but Ang Lee could take something as goofy as the incredible hulk and make it something to think about. Also, before I incur the wrath of Hulk comic book fans, lets be honest. It's impossible to incorporate the soul of a whole comic book series into a two hour film. Any comic book adaptation is just that, an adaptation. You get a glimpse of the themes from the comic book, and a partially standalone story. Thats not to say that douche-monkeys like Brett Ratner should get their hands on X-Men, but I think that the Hulk is WAAAY undervalued.

  • Oct. 9, 2007, 8:36 a.m. CST

    This looks like some serious cinema.

    by Knuckleduster

    Good stuff. Not enough of that around these days.

  • Oct. 9, 2007, 2:18 p.m. CST

    Black Book was awesome.

    by Spandau Belly

    I generally dislike WW2 flicks, but loved it. I'll see this too, it does look along the same lines as BB and Mori saying so gets me more interested.

  • Oct. 9, 2007, 2:29 p.m. CST

    Weird Fluke?

    by tHeGRinGoGenTiLE

    He EARNED that shit, homeboy. Make no mistake about it. Not just anyone can make a great film about cowboys fuckin each other.

  • Oct. 9, 2007, 5:11 p.m. CST

    Black Book was 50 times better

    by polyh3dron

    This movie was dull as all hell... So dull that those crazy sex scenes couldn't save it.

  • Oct. 10, 2007, 10:55 a.m. CST

    Dr Sauch

    by Movietool

    Soul, Schmoul. The Hulk IS about crushing cars and green monsters. I don't know WHAT Ang's movie was about, but it wasn't about The Hulk.