‘Lust, Caution’: Slow Boat, By Kurt Loder

The excellent Tony Leung adrift on Ang Lee's ocean of talk, talk, talk -- oh, and a little sex too.

Because of its rating — the oddly inexact NC-17 — no one under the age of 18 is allowed to buy a ticket for this movie, its brief but vivid sex scenes having been deemed inappropriate by the mysterious film-assessors of the MPAA. (Members of the tender 17-and-under demographic can always grab an older sibling and go see one of the R-rated blood-and-torture horror epics, like “Captivity” or “Hostel.”)

Eighteen-year-olds who can shell out for tickets to “Lust, Caution,” however, may wonder why they weren’t warned about other aspects of the picture — like its length (more than two and a half hours), its pace (either stately or slow, depending on one’s gluteal endurance) or its dialogue (a subtitled salad of Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Japanese and a few vagrant words in English). It also helps to have some knowledge of the war between Japan and China that began in 1937 and ended with the Japanese defeat in 1945, at the end of World War II. Prospective viewers should hit the books.

The movie concerns a student drama club in Hong Kong that has decided to take political action and eliminate a traitorous collaborator named Yee (Tony Leung), the head of the secret police in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. To fulfill this mission, the students select their alluring lead actress, a girl named Wong (Tang Wei), whom they deputize to get close to Yee and set him up for assassination.

Much talk ensues, followed by much more talk, a lot of it conducted by chattering collaborationist ladies shuffling game tiles around a mahjong table. Wong finally does get close to Yee — very close, which is where the movie’s two sex scenes come in. The first of these involves a belt and a beating (of the woman, naturally, although this interlude can’t hold a bloody candle to the female dismemberment in a film like, say, “I Know Who Killed Me”). The second sex scene is indeed pretty hot for a picture by an Oscar-winning director like Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain”). I wouldn’t say it qualifies as pornographic, but there is a flash of sexual mechanics that strongly suggests that Tang and Leung are truly in the throes of carnal conjugation. In any case, these scenes clearly haven’t been included simply to delight and arouse the viewer, but to illuminate the characters’ psychological states — a rare thing.

The movie goes on and on and on before arriving at a rather dismal conclusion. The story is basically a top-drawer melodrama of unusual intelligence, but a melodrama nonetheless. Since Yee’s presumably brutal depredations are never specified, the character remains something of a cipher throughout the film — a waste of Tony Leung’s charismatic warmth, so memorably deployed by director Wong Kar Wai in such pictures as “In the Mood for Love” and “2046.” This leaves 27-year-old movie first-timer Tang Wei, a Chinese stage actress and onetime Miss Universe contestant, to carry the film with her exquisite beauty (its mesmerizing effect not unlike that of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” star Zhang Ziyi) and her unflagging attention to emotional detail. We’ll no doubt be seeing more of her, a pleasant prospect.

The movie has a classy, ’40s-style sheen, thanks to “Brokeback Mountain” cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto; but many sequences — even some of the Shanghai street scenes — seem stagy and under-populated. Lee has said the film has a Chinese sensibility that may not play well in the West, and Lord knows he’s probably right about that. However, when he submitted the picture for distribution in China, government censors demanded that he cut half an hour out of it — whether for reasons of politics, morals or simple viewer mercy is unknown. In any event, American 17-year-olds might count the movie’s inaccessibility (until the DVD comes out, anyway) as a small, unintended kindness.

Read Kurt Loder’s review of “The Hearbreak Kid,” also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Lust, Caution.”

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