Thursday, January 03, 2008


The spy who f***ed me

By Edward Copeland
You know the old joke that sex is like pizza: Even when it's bad, it's not that bad. While that isn't really true about pizza, it's even more false about movies, especially pretty bores like Ang Lee's Lust, Caution.

While Lust, Caution richly deserves its praise on technical points, as for storytelling, James Schamus and Wang Hui-Ling's adaptation of Eileen Chang's story lands with a dull, laborious thud.

Much of its pre-release notoriety stemmed from its NC-17 rating because of what the MPAA deemed explicit sex scenes between leads Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Wei Tang.

The story concerns the occupation of Shanghai and Hong Kong by the Japanese during the World War II era and a pack of resistance fighters determined to bring down a powerful Chinese collaborator Mr. Yee (Leung Chiu Wai) using a sexy operative named Wong Chia Chi (Tang) to get close to him. Sounds like a fairly simple story to tell, doesn't it?

However, the proceedings are dragged out to a 158-minute running time. Making matters worse, the dialogue moves at a rapid pace and, though I'm an old hand at watching movies with subtitles, the text changes so quickly (often blending in with the images behind the white letters), that you can't keep up.

If you are curious about Lust, Caution based on the sex alone, be warned that it takes a long time to get to them and they are hardly worth the wait.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was watching the movie on a screener DVD and two hours in, the disc started freezing and jumping. I did the usual routine (taking it out, dusting it off, etc.), but after several tries, I gave up. I'd seen enough and I couldn't imagine that last half-hour or so would awaken this film from its slumber.

Does Mr. Yee get killed? Does the rough and enthusiastic sex convince the spy to save her lover? I don't know and honestly, I just didn't care enough at the point to find out.

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The one thing that I've retained from the film is Tang Wei's performance. She knocks it out of the park and it's definitely one of my favorite performances of the year. The thing about the sex scenes though is that they show the change in the dynamic between Tony Leung and her character. They're also very hot and very graphic but that's beside the point. It's very beautiful and all but aside from Tang Wei's performance, it's rather forgettable.
This movie should have been called Lust, Boredom. At least it's pretty to look at, though that couldn't save it from being a drag. The leads have no chemistry, and you should consider it a blessing that you couldn't read the subtitles. A major disappointment from every angle: artistic, perverted, and emotional.
Allow me to dissent: I love this film. It is slow, in that it covers every detail and angle. It is a fully fleshed out short story. I think it's unfair for a short story about interior psychology, that doesn't use voiceover and instead communicates visually, to be granted only a set amount of minutes (say, 90) before it gets "boring." Why do we let the Lord of the Rings movies stay at 180 minutes? Isn't that stupid, to cram so much into one film? Novel-length should not always equal theatrical length, and Lust, Caution has more depth than most novel-length adaptations.

This movie is about transformation, and the political backdrop makes it even more intriguing; I love that Tang Wei's character is not politically motivated. She is an actress playing a role, and eventually her "method acting" becomes so immersive that she loses the separation between her real feelings and her acted ones. The dividing line is sex. You missed out on the ending, which fulfills these themes.
Evan, I have no objection to long movies, but this one just never grabbed my attention. I forget who said it, but I always remember the quote: No great movie is too long and no bad movie is too short. I wouldn't go so far as to call Lust, Caution bad, but it certainly wore out its welcome with me and I don't think those final 30 minutes I didn't get to see would have won me over.
To clarify, my comment was objecting to the idea that short, simple stories like this one cannot be fully fleshed out in every detail, to feature-length and beyond. This stems from the belief that novel-length writing is easily translatable to feature-length film. My comment about the Lord of the Rings was intended to say that those films are indeed too short, for their original material is so massive; we have uneven standards for pacing in film, and do not let material breathe. I think this film and No Country for Old Men do an admirable job of translating that literary style of contemplation into film. Both are much slower paced than the typical modern fare, but both are much FASTER paced than a huge chunk of pre-60s popular American cinema.

Thanks for your response.
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