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Photograph by Chan Kam Chuen
LOVE WITH A FASCIST: Tang Wei seduces Tony Leung Chiu Wai for reasons both personal and political in 'Lust, Caution.'

Love and War

Ang Lee's 'Lust, Caution' rethinks Hitchcock's 'Notorious' in tale of wartime romance

By Richard von Busack

IS Lust, Caution more than just Ang Lee's Black Book? There's far more to it than sexual explicitness and the World War II French resistance plot transplanted to China. Lee's film is a fatal wartime romance set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, with a long flashback to Hong Kong before the war. The tremendously dense production design by Lai Pan brings to life the vintage Shanghai of cigarette posters and other dreams. Lee swaths this story in visual humidity—a character says, "Hong Kong is so humid, you can get a handful of water just by closing your fist." There are more cheong-sams than decorated In the Mood For Love, even—vivid and python-striped in one case. One of them is ripped off the (ultimately) willing body of the heroine, Wong Chia Chi. She is played by Tang Wei, in perhaps the bravest and most ambiguous female performance of the year.

Lee (Brokeback Mountain) works from Eileen Chang's short story. But there's an uncredited presence here, too. Lee uses snippets of the Cary Grant movie Penny Serenade and the Ingrid Bergman vehicle Intermezzo; and although we don't see it here, Lee also references the time Grant and Bergman met in Hitchcock's Notorious. Like that thriller, Lust, Caution asks: What will become of a woman who is prostituted out for the sake of her country? Wong Chia Chi, an acting student, is recruited from her university class into a cell of amateur patriots on the eve of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. The cell's target is a collaborationist Chinese businessman, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai). The cell members disguise her as a married lady named Mrs. Mak. She infiltrates the society mahjong games of Yee's almost harem-kept spouse (Joan Chen). The plan is discovered by one of Yee's thugs, who is dealt with as only a group of ardent but inept students can bungle the job. Years pass. In Shanghai, the fire Wong Chia Chi tried to kindle finally breaks out.

The two couple with a violence that will leave the weaker members of the audience—the ones who think sex is soft music and back rubs—ready to walk out. Lee poses a troubling question: Could one fall in love with a fascist—if he were coldly handsome and beautifully dressed, perhaps? To make Lust, Caution more provocative, Lee includes mention of Yee's business trips to Nanjing—that city where the consequences of the Japanese invasion are never to be forgotten. So the balance of attraction and repulsion is about as sharp as could be imagined. With no Gary Grant/Devlin character from Notorious to set the moral compass right, Wang has to figure her own path as she sets her lover up for his execution.

Lust, Caution is a great romantic movie, with a full Kowloon moon, a cruel antihero and silks, lipstick and knives. At the end, though, it is maddening. Realizing that the fascists were human, one doesn't have to forgive them, or equate one fascist minister's broken heart with the broken bodies he left behind.

Movie Times LUST, CAUTION (NC-17; 157 min.), directed by Ang Lee, written by James Schamus and Wang Hui-Ling, based on a story by Eileen Chang, photographed by Rodrigo Prieto and starring Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Tang Wei, opens Oct. 12 at Camera 7 in Campbell and the Guild in Menlo selected theaters.

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