Watching previews for Lust, Caution, you probably thought, “Hmm, Ang Lee does Wong Kar Wai.” Not bad, you little cineaste, but the actual film has a much different feeling. This political melodrama, with its controversially rough sex and spicy undercurrent of right-wing brutality (despite Tony Leung’s great performance as Mr. Yee), feels European somehow-more like a Lina Wertm¼ller film. But the clincher comes in the first act, when the seemingly delicate Wang Jiazhi (Wei Tang) slips off to the movies and we are treated to the image of Ingrid Bergman sobbing in buttery black and white. Your thoughts change; “This is Ang Lee doing a Bertolucci film.” Bingo. It’s Last Tango meets The Dreamers. Though, unfortunately, the connection tends to emphasize the weak side of both directors.
Everybody agrees that Ang Lee is admirable for variety: that even the horrendous flops (The Hulk) offer proof of his versatility. Like Bertolucci, though, Lee’s restless spirit drives him to diverse genres which he either hits memorably (Crouching Tiger, Brokeback Mountain), or misses (Ride with the Devil). More like Bertolucci, Lee seems to like political themes, yet also seems confused by them. Here the protagonists are over-wrought idealists dabbling in resistance, and Yee’s palpable sexual hunger and ruthless sadomasochistic urges somehow win him the love of the most vulnerable and pathetically kind rebel. You can’t really tell what Lee thinks is noble here.
What’s really missing from this film is motive. We never see why Wang is drawn to Mr. Yee, or even why his students go after him. Lee seems clinical in love and, with one great exception, non-violent about the war.
Meanwhile Wang goes to see films like Notorious and Indiscreet; not exactly subtle allusions. Even though the immersion in Shanghai under the Japanese is fascinating terrain, you may want back into the Ingrid Bergman films. At least when she fell for bad boys, everybody in the theater understood why.