Ang Lee's new World War II film, Lust, Caution, is about the complications, compromises, and perils of setting foot in that dangerous, shifting terrain where duty and passion overlap. In the film, a small-time female entertainer working for the political resistance invents a new identity and invades the upper class to get close to a big-time male political operative. This cool, detached character gradually lets his guard down around the wily female spy, and as their affair proceeds, they discover that their emotional and romantic bonds are stronger and more binding than the shackles of political allegiance. In the end, one of them is senselessly murdered, and the other one remains haunted by memories of an affair that was doomed at best.
Is anyone experiencing a mild sense of déjà vu right now? If you are, that's because the plot of Lust, Caution is nearly identical to the plot of Paul Verhoeven's Black Book, also released this year. And aside from the setting — Verhoeven's film is set in Germany and the Netherlands while Lee's work is set in Hong Kong and Japanese-occupied Shanghai — the films share much more than their basic story arcs. Both feature striking female leads who seek solace in the popular movies of the day when times grow tough, and both assume a grim view of resistance-fighting and wartime in general. But the difference between Black Book and Lust, Caution is the difference between art and commerce, genius and talent, inspiration and proficiency, memorable and forgettable, good and ungood.
In his version of the story, though, Lee initially seems to have surpassed Verhoeven in the unnerving sex-scene department — and that's no small feat. In a surprising narrative twist, Lee arranges a bait-and-switch "love scene" when Miss Wong (ably played by Tang Wei) and Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) first meet; what looks like a long, slow erotic interlude quickly turns into a rough, date-rape nightmare. There's tremendous physical and emotional tension in the nude brawls between Wong and Yee that comes from the anger, rage, and frustration they bottle up inside. But this is too one-dimensional and as limited as showing sex as pure, mindless pleasure. I miss the way Verhoeven's scenes worked as both titillation and commentary; the riskiest and strangest dominance and power games his characters played retain a kind of goofball consensual trippiness, as though pleasure, power, and exploitation were not just linked but eternally inseparable.
Verhoeven also has an audacity and knack for imagery and storytelling that Lee cannot approach. The characters in Lust, Caution wait around in the rain for days while nothing happens; in Black Book, no one was safe from harm for more than five minutes. Verhoeven's film argued that the winners of the war were as heinous and cruel as the losers; on a smaller and decidedly less original scale, Lee's film argues that when a woman says "I hate you," she really means "I kinda like you." These days, that observation isn't enough.
Studio on the Square