Monday, October 8, 2007

Cautious criticism

Lust, Caution [NC-17]
Grade: C

About half-way through my press screening of Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, the assembled film critics stumbled into a reel missing its English subtitles.

I wish I could paint for you a shameful picture of critics pelting the screen with popcorn. But somehow civilization prevailed without the need for police intervention.

Yes, I know what you are thinking. Surely critics are used to being left in the dark, both physically and mentally, judging by the things they like and say. But linguistically is something new. Yet when the subtitles resumed, I don’t think anyone felt lost or deprived by their departure. No one loudly demanded that they dig up the right reel and run it again.

Sometimes the most important observations visit you by accident, and I think this one quietly defines a great deal about Lee, the filmmaker – his incredible composure as a visual storyteller, the passionate emotional radiance that underlies his manicured images, and the invariably predictable storylines that he chooses to pursue.

It’ s that last one that usually keeps me from giving wholly to an Ang Lee film, the nagging feeling that all of the summoned cinematic genius will eventually end with a queasy “That’s it?” feeling. The quality of his filmmaking raises promises that the films never quite fulfill. So it is with this film. Lust, Caution may be a brilliantly executed piece of cinema, but rarely have so many fireworks been fired in pursuit of so little pop.

Set amid the Japanese invasion of China during World War II, Tang Wei plays a university student involved in a theatre company that, in a fit of patriotic zeal, decides to stalk and assassinate a wealthy businessman advocating peace with the Japanese (Tony Leung). A couple funny things happen on the way to the ambush. She hits it off well with the target’s wife, and she catches the lustful, cautious attention of the dignitary.

A few years later while living in war-deprived Shanghai, she’s approached to finish the plot. As she returns and moves further into the circle of her prey, now a collaborationist leader, she finds herself drawn to the man she plans to help kill.

From there, the story takes the predictable turns of divided loyalties, of the personal versus the political. From that description, you probably can surmise where things are going and the choices that she will be forced to make. The film proceeds along this course with some lengthy, raucous sex scenes (part of the reason why no rewind was needed – not that much dialogue).
I’ve either just warned you or titillated you. I don’t really want to know which.

It also delivers some of the richest, most detailed filmmaking we’ve seen this year. In films like The Ice Storm, Sense and Sensibility and even the relatively recent Brokeback Mountain, Lee has demonstrated an astonishing exactness of period detail. It’s no different here, a handsome and convincing trip through time, aided by startling lighting and cinematography. Likewise the script, by Brokeback Mountain contributor James Schamus and Wang Hui Ling, admirably never does more than what’s needed – sparse in word, reserved in deed, and unbridled in passion.

Yet even with those positives, maybe even because of those positives, I wonder more than ever, will I ever find a Lee film that fully satisfies me? Or are his films so stuck in Bronze-medal mode that it just won’t happen? I don’t know now, and I won’t know for some time, but finding out is certainly never an entirely unworthy venture.

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