Spy 100, #38: Lust, Caution

Now here’s a movie I was not looking forward to re-watching. I saw director Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007) in the theater when it came out, and I found it profoundly disappointing. Not because it’s a horrible movie, but because it’s a lush, attractively shot, engagingly structured espionage film…with a soul-crushing ending that obliterates all that comes before it. On a second viewing, the effect is mitigated somewhat by knowing what’s coming, but even so it’s a painful experience.

In 1938, Wong Chia-chei (Tang Wei) is a student in Hong Kong who hooks up with an amateur drama group, which produces patriotic plays supporting China’s resistance to the Japanese invasion. An inexperienced actress, she turns out to be a natural, and becomes the go-to performer when the group’s leader Kuang (Leehom Wang) decides to escalate their patriotism to a dangerous new level. The plan: to assassinate the cold-hearted Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), a Chinese official collaborating with the deplorable Japanese occupiers. In order to isolate Yee for the kill, Chia-chei poses as “Mrs. Mak,” and insinuates herself into the social circle of Yee’s wife (Joan Chen) in the hopes of getting close enough to tempt him into an affair. The group’s elaborate Big Store con nearly succeeds, but an unexpected glitch delays the honey trap by two years, when Chia-chei’s seduction finally bears fruit in Shanghai. Yee’s paranoid caution, however, extends the torrid, clandestine affair far beyond her breaking point, tragically confusing her mission.

The film isn’t without considerable good qualities: it’s a lavish production, the period is convincingly recreated, the stakes escalate engrossingly. The early stages of the film, when the idealistic rebels concoct and execute their risky plan, is compelling stuff. Tang Wei gives a gripping and courageous central performance in a challenging role. Much of the film has the feel of a classic Hitchcock movie, from its Notorious-like set-up, to its awkward murder right out of Torn Curtain. But, fatally, the story hinges on the romance between Chia-chei and Yee, and I just didn’t see it. The sex scenes are explicit, but there’s no real chemistry between them as people, no credible emotional connection. In fact, Yee is utterly unsympathetic: a political sell-out who enjoys torturing people to maintain a place of power in a puppet government, an adulterer who rapes his mistress. And we’re led to believe that our idealistic protagonist falls for him, for real? It just doesn’t work, and it makes her decisions unbelievable, not to mention depressing.

It’s a heart-wrenching and suspenseful film that builds to an infuriatingly unsatisfying apocalypse of an ending; the destination just doesn’t justify the journey. The spy genre is well known for its dark turns, but the message here reaches a new low, bleaker than bleak.

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