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Friday, 11 December 2009

Review: Lust, Caution, Ang Lee (2007)

Small details matter in this adaptation of Eileen Chang's brilliant short story. It's not just the perfectly-rendered Hong Kong and Shanghai of the 1930s that impress us. Lee takes pains with small gestures - like the look of sudden fear that sweeps across Mr Yee's face as he sits in the jeweller's with Mak Taitai - so that we are completely engrossed in this story of love and subterfuge.

The story is simple. Wong Chia Chi (Wei Tang) is a young student in China's south when war between the Kuomintang and the Japanese breaks out. Invited to participate in a theatrical troupe, she accepts. Later, the ringleader, Kuang Yu Ming (Lee-Hom Wang) orchestrates a change of pace for the troupe by inspiring them to participate in a sting designed to kill a notorious collaborator, Mr Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai).

Mr Yee is a stiff, autocratic character not given to sudden outbursts of emotion. He walks with a straight back, talks softly, and tolerates his wife. Wong is a true believer. In the beginning we see her - in close-up - acting on stage in a patriotic drama. She doesn't need to cry - the audience is too far away to see her tears. But we can see them.

Wong becomes the bait, in the guise of 'Mr Mak''s wife. She is to seduce Mr Yee and draw her to the house one of the troupe has secured - it is owned by his father - so that the young people can finish him off with guns. She fails. Mr Yee is sent back to Shanghai. Wong resumes her student life.

Three years later, Wong is again approached to operate as a spy, this time for the Communists. Again, Kuang is there to convince her of the plot's virtue. As a house guest, this time, in Mr Yee's domicile, Wong becomes like a member of the family. Mr Yee is quick to take advantage of the opportunity, and organises trysts during which he and Wong grapple passionately.

We're never sure if Wong is taking to her task with more than requisite abandon.

It's this uncertainty about Wong's true feelings that energises the movie. The crunch comes when she lures him to a jewellery shop where Mr Yee has bought her a large stone, and paid for it to be set. Even at this point - minutes from the end of the movie - we don't know if Wong loves Mr Yee.

But it is positive proof from Mr Yee that he loves her, that saves his own life.

For Wong and the gang - initially just earnest students committed to serving and preserving China against an alien invader - the story ends badly. For the viewer, even the final scene - an unmade bed shot with moody lighting - plays its part in the shadowy drama that has unfolded over the course of the film.

Ang Lee is a master, and this film a fitting reminder that great cinema is always possible.

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