LUST, CAUTION directed by Ang Lee, written by James Schamus from a story by Eileen Chang, with Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Wei Tang and Joan Chen. 157 minutes. A Sony Classics release. Subtitled. Opens Friday (October 5). Rating: NN
Coming off his directing Oscar for Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee returns to China for this WWII melodrama about a young resistance fighter (Wei Tang) in occupied Shanghai who falls in with a group that wants to kill Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), who works with the Japanese.
After about 50 minutes, during which we watch a lot of mah-jong (which I think I'm beginning to understand as a game), we get them alone in a room. After, oh, 70 minutes or so, they go on a date.
It's all exquisitely, deliberately crafted to show us the characters in full, their socio-historical context, their lives in Hong Kong before the war, and the depredations of the Japanese occupation. (From movies like Empire Of The Sun, The White Countess and now this, one might think Shanghai was the only part of China that was occupied.)
However, and this is a big however, eventually you've got to bring on the characters and start the story, and Lee has indulged his fondness for painstaking psychological detail to the detriment of narrative. There were times during the screening when, checking my watch, I thought he'd actually figured out how to make a movie that could stop time. I'm normally sympathetic to Lee's often deliberate pace. (I'm one of about 20 people who loved his American Civil War western Ride With The Devil, but then that movie kills a lot more people than Lust, Caution.)
With all his psychological longueurs and significant eye contact, Lee is wandering into Wong Kar-wai territory, especially with Tony Leung as his leading man. There are people who adore In The Mood For Love, but I've developed a resistance to Brief Encounter-type films about people deciding not to do things.
The censorious Chinese government has demanded - and will get - a version of Lust, Caution that's about 30 minutes shorter and without the film's remarkably graphic sex scenes.
I'd like to see about 30 minutes taken out of the running time myself, but not the same 30 minutes the Chinese government wants pruned.
The Chinese version should be a really excruciating experience - all foreplay and no payoff.