Movie News & Reviews

Elegant emptiness

I am now convinced that, with the end of the year fast approaching, there will be two types of moviegoers: people who dug Paul Verhoeven's "Black Book" and people who dug Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution."

They're both practically the same film: Young, beautiful woman joins the resistance during World War II and uses her feminine wiles to seduce a member of the other side, but ends up falling for the enemy.

I'll tell you this: With both movies clocking in at two hours plus, they're both too long.

But of the two, I would have to say that "Lust," adapted from a 1979 short story by Eileen Chang, is, unfortunately, the most disappointing, especially considering who's behind the lens. This film is supposed to be 157 minutes of extreme romance and intense intrigue, a "Notorious" for the new millennium, captured by the "Brokeback Mountain" man himself. But when it was all over, I found myself perturbed, dazed, taken aback by its elegant emptiness.

We think we're headed down a road of secrecy and suspense as we see the main character, the radiant Mak Tai Tai (scrumptious newcomer Tang Wei), playing mah-jongg with a group of ladies, in 1942 Shanghai. One of them is the wife of Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), a collaborator with the Japanese, who shows up shortly to exchange some telltale glances with Mak that imply they have a, shall we say, Me-and-Mrs. Jones-style thing going on.

Before we can take that all in, the movie has her flashing back to her college days, when she was really Wong Chia-Chi and her political theater group intended to infiltrate Yee's life to rub him out.

Alas, that mission failed horribly (a dead body, not Yee's, was involved). This prompted Wong to flee and discard her life of espionage -- until the real resistance came calling for her to once again enter Mr. Yee's life and finish the job.

Since this movie is rated NC-17 (don't you find it ironic that this movie got the NC-17 rating, not the movie directed by the "Showgirls" guy?!), you're probably wondering when the tawdriness is going to kick in. It takes nearly two hours for any graphic sex to surface onscreen, and when that happens, it's the most uncomfortable, unsavory, downright unsexy sex I've seen in a movie -- at least this year. Leung and Tang wrap themselves in positions I don't think Cirque du Soleil performers would be comfortable in.

Not only does this add fuel to my ever-burning pet peeve of sex in mainstream movies being bereft of joy or even pleasure (even in porn films, the actors look like they're having a good time -- not that I'm an avid watcher, mind you), but it also reveals Lee's Achilles' heel as a filmmaker who is all thumbs when it comes to credibly capturing sexuality onscreen.

Whether it's guy-on-girl or guy-on-guy, the man has always had a problem getting people to look like they're into each other between the sheets. (Who can forget the "Give me back my comb" tussle in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"? I know I can't, no matter how hard I try.)

Now, I don't condone violence toward filmmakers (except when it's Brett Ratner, but that's for another review), but Lee should really be smacked upside the head for the way he uses Leung in this.

Wong Kar-Wai fans will want to do the same when they see their darling, dashing Leung, looking like an Asian Barack Obama, lost of his swooniness. His Mr. Yee is first introduced as a closely guarded business-minded introvert who could possess the soul of a romantic. But it turns out dude is a soulless, self-loathing sadist, practically raping Wong during their first rendezvous. And wouldn't you know it? She kinda digs that about him.

But for all the so-called sexual/political friction Lee tries to incite in and with this movie (as well as the twisted logic that crimes of war and crimes of the heart can be interchangeable), "Lust, Caution" is still another movie that shows how girls will always fall for the bad guys -- and will always pay for it in the end.

Man, at least "Black Book" had fun with this premise.