Although it’s based on a short story by Eileen Chang, Ang Lee’s beautiful but remote Chinese-language follow-up to “Brokeback Mountain” is actually an Asian take on Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious.” The picture itself hints at the connection when its heroine goes to a Shanghai cinema and the camera lingers on a poster for “Suspicion” (having to choose that 1941 Hitch film over the real model because the story is set in 1942, four years before “Notorious” was released). But “Lust, Caution” is like a variant of “Notorious” in which the Cary Grant character is reduced to a minor player, the happy ending is jettisoned in favor of something far darker, and—oh, yes—the couple played by Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains engage repeatedly in rough sex, explicitly enough presented to earn the picture an NR-17 rating.
And the “Notorious” connection isn’t the only one to Hitch’s films. The story’s central conceit—that a naïve woman pretends to be someone else in order to seduce a man for ulterior motives—links it not only with “Notorious” but with “Vertigo” (and Alexandre Desplat’s evocative score often recalls Bernard Herrmann’s classic one for that film). And there’s an extended sequence showing how very difficult it is to kill a man that’s very similar in effect to the one in Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain.”
Are all these similarities purely accidental? Perhaps, but I think not. Because “Lust, Caution” succeeds not so much as an espionage thriller, nor as a romance, but as an exercise in technique—visually extravagant, swooning, and vaguely over-the-top, but at the same time entrancing and engrossing over its long (157-minute) running-time. It won’t make your pulse race or engage your emotions, but if you’ll surrender to its leisurely pace and combination of restraint and abrupt paroxysms of passion, it will intoxicate your senses.
The picture begins in 1942, in the home of Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), security head of the Chinese government that’s collaborating with the occupying Japanese, where his voluble wife (Joan Chen) is entertaining a mahjong party that includes the beautiful Mrs. Mack (Tang Wei), the wife of a Hong Kong businessman. When Mr. Yee stops by the table, he and Mrs. Mack share glances that indicate they’re somehow involved. But it’s soon revealed that she’s also involved with young Kuang Yumin (Wang Leehom), who’s in the resistance.
Cut back to 1938 Hong Kong, where the supposed Mrs. Mak is revealed as college student Wang Jiazhi, who’s enticed into a rebellious, anti-Japanese theatre troupe by Kuang. He persuades the girl to take the Mak disguise so that she can get close enough to Yee to lure the traitor to his death. But the plot fails and Yee escapes the group’s assassination attempt.
Flash ahead to 1941, when after some difficult years Kuang approaches Wang to resume her imposture to seduce Yee again, with the same purpose in mind. This time their relationship turns seriously passionate, and the outwardly stoic Yee seems on the verge of abandoning his customary cautiousness to his desires, when Wang has to choose between going through with her mission or saving the life of a collaborator for whom she’s apparently grown to have some affection (though that’s hardly apparent from what we’ve seen).
This is a fairly simple tale—as you might expect from the fact that it’s derived from a short story—drawn out, many will say unconscionably, to epic length by Lee’s extremely lush, languorous style. And the lack of real emotional connection with the characters will lead others to dismiss the film out of hand (one cared a lot more about the fate of Ingrid Bergman, and even of Rains). But “Lust, Caution” is so beautiful to look at that for some of us at least its sheer sensual pleasure will outweigh its problems. Rodrigo Prieto’s gauzy cinematography sets off Pan Lai’s period production design and Olympic Lau’s art direction elegantly, and the costumes (by Pan) are equally attractive.
So whether Lee’s film will appeal to you depends on whether you’ll prize its refined surface or be turned off by its lack of inner vitality. But fascinated or bored, you won’t be able to deny the level or craftsmanship it displays. And perhaps you’ll see the homage to Hitchcock in it, too.