It's unnerving to see "Lust, Caution" as the title of Ang Lee's provocative new film because these states, each capable of obliterating the other, exist at the opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. They can never be reconciled, and characters who are forced by circumstance to live on the knife's edge between them not only endure unbearable tension but risk savage emotional destruction as well.
Just such a situation is the heart of Lee's intense, psychologically intricate and sexually explicit film fleshed out by his longtime collaborators Wang Hui Ling and James Schamus. They worked from a short story by influential Chinese writer Eileen Chang about a disturbing love affair set in China during the years of its World War II occupation by the Japanese.
A brooding meditation on the unnerving power and terrible cost of emotional and political masquerades, the Chinese-language "Lust, Caution" gets under your skin with its examination of what qualifies as love and what does not. The reconciling of seeming opposites is evident not only in the title but also in almost every aspect of the film, starting with the casting of Tony Leung, one of the biggest stars in Asia, against the relatively unknown actress Tang Wei.
While the nearly 2-hour, 40-minute "Lust" is as deliberately paced and as determined to take its time as the most rarefied art film, its story is an unapologetic wartime melodrama, centering as it does on spies, assassination plots, adultery and several kinds of betrayal.
As melodramas go, however, this is an unmistakably adult one, as Lee has been careful to bring subtlety and sophistication to these undeniably pulpy premises. But yet again, though he cares deeply about character and psychology, about what goes on in the mind, the director has also been body-conscious enough to understand that this story needed the kind of unembarrassed, acrobatic sex that earned "Lust, Caution" an unapologetic NC-17 rating.
Those three relatively brief sexual encounters are the distillation of 154 grueling hours of filming in front of only the director, top-drawer cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and two assistants, a period that was so hyperintense that one crew member called it "11 days in hell."
Yet existing alongside this focus on what went on in small spaces behind tightly closed doors is an interest in epic, panoramic history that led to the construction of a full-size replica of a sizable stretch of a 1942 Shanghai street, a standing set that encompassed 182 dressed, stocked and aged storefronts. Noted Lee, who has "Sense & Sensibility" among his credits, "re-creating Jane Austen's era was easier."
The existence of that street underlines that what is really significant about "Lust, Caution" is not its NC-17 rating but that it is Lee's first Chinese-language film since "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000) and his first anywhere since winning the best director Oscar for "Brokeback Mountain" in 2006.
Clearly it would take a story that wouldn't let him go to bring back the filmmaker, and Chang's tale, which she revised again and again for more than 25 years before it was published in 1979, has been on Lee's mind for quite some time. It also allowed him to explore a critical period of Chinese history, the years of the Japanese occupation, which the rest of the world has all but forgot- en.
Though it's longer than the story that became "Brokeback Mountain," Chang's narrative is so sparely written that the screen credit might have been "suggested by." "Lust, Caution's" script turns hints into incidents and deepens the story's emotions while smartly teasing out the implications of what is on the page. "We just had to fill in the spaces she laid out," Lee has said, but there is more to it than that, including a change in emphasis and tone in the denouement that is critical.
"Lust, Caution" begins in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in 1942, inside the residential compound for high officials of the Chinese collaborationist government, a well-guarded enclave where the soothing click of tiles punctuates a mah-jongg game among the wives of the powerful hosted by Yee Tai Tai (Joan Chen).
Her husband, Mr. Yee (Leung), makes a brief appearance at the game. He is an opaque, taciturn presence (the opposite of the charming types Leung often plays) whose vaguely sinister edge fits with his occupation as the head of the intelligence service of the collaborationist regime. The merest hint of a look passes between him and another of the wives at the table, the svelte and sophisticated Mak Tai Tai (Tang Wei), but this is the kind of film where looks of any kind are significant.
Almost immediately Mak Tai Tai makes an excuse to leave the game. She goes to a cafe in downtown Shanghai, where she makes a phone call to a group of men, sits down at a table and begins to remember the past, specifically events in Hong Kong four years earlier, that the film then extensively flashes back to.