Perhaps the first thing to say about Ang Lee's new film "Lust, Caution," is that the cinematography and the sense of period China from 1938 to 1942 is utterly stunning. Shot by Rodrigo Prieto, who also shot "Amores Perros," "Frida," "8 Mile," "21 Grams," "Brokeback Mountain" and "Babel," among others, this film has reproduced perfectly both the choreography of the crowded streets and the way in which the dark wood and incandescent lights of the interiors of Shanghai and Hong Kong homes of the era help define the characters. This is one of those rare films where the photography is at least as important as the plot of the story.
And the story is simple: A young girl, Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei), on vacation in Hong Kong from college, is recruited into a resistance movement against the Japanese who've occupied China, along with their collaborationist Chinese partners. Her target is Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), who is in charge of the interrogation and torture of captured Chinese spies. She adopts the persona of a Mrs. Mak, whose husband conveniently is always away in Singapore. She becomes a Mah-Jongg player at the house of Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen) in order to become acquainted with Mr. Yee, and ultimately he makes her his mistress.
Their sexual activities have given the film an NC-17 rating, but they are more violent than erotic. Her role is to lead him to his assassination by the rest of the group, but he and she both find they need each other; perhaps they even love each other.
Tony Leung, who made his reputation as the lead in Wong Kar-Wai's "In the Mood for Love" and "2048," in both of which he played a failed writer and an unrequited lover, is quite different here, with a stern, sadistic quality that Tang Wei unexpectedly responds to.
It is possible to say that the story is too thin to support two and a half hours of film, but the fact is that I was never bored; just living with the sense of China at the time of the Japanese occupation, beautifully shot and choreographed, was enough for me. Yes, in retrospect the film (from a short story by Eileen Chang) lacks the novelistic invention of subplots and a larger, more complex texture - perhaps more of the war and its implications; but Ang Lee has managed to hold us spellbound with his atmosphere of the time and two fascinating performances by Leung and Tang Wei.