Critics too cautious for Ang Lee#039;s must-see Lust

by Beacon Staff • October 10, 2007

Unfortunately, such is the case with Ang Lee's newest film Lust, Caution, a brilliant but misunderstood movie about the perversions of love during inhumane times of war.,It's a frustrating moment for moviegoers when film critics, like the folks at The New York Times, gang up on a respectable movie and dismiss it-especially one geared towards their high-brow sensibilities.

Unfortunately, such is the case with Ang Lee's newest film Lust, Caution, a brilliant but misunderstood movie about the perversions of love during inhumane times of war.

The film has been out in theaters for less than a week, but negative reviews will most likely hinder any future success it might have. Therefore, do this criminally underrated movie a favor; go see it and judge for yourself.

Told with both epic scope and astonishing detail, Lust, Caution, much like Lee's Brokeback Mountain, takes the typical Hollywood love story and flips it onto its head.

However, critics have made the fatal mistake of labeling this vastly complex film as an erotic thriller that, in their mind, doesn't thrill or arouse as much as an erotic thriller should.

Have the critics not learned anything from Ang Lee? The Taiwanese-born director is famous for making films that defy the limitations of genres, and Lust, Caution is no exception.

Just look at Brokeback Mountain, a love story about gay cowboys in Wyoming that manages to shoot the Western genre to pieces and deconstruct the myth of masculinity. And how about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? A martial arts movie that invests more time in its love story than in its rooftop action sequences.

Thus, to call Lust, Caution an erotic thriller would be to ignore everything that Lee has invested in the film. If it manages to be erotic in moments and thrilling in others, that's only because it is also an intensely romantic film, filled with an equal amount of deep-seated rage and heartache.

Though Lust, Caution is laborious in its 157 minute running time, it is also arguably Ang Lee's finest work to date. It's a movie that not only shatters the conventional love story, but like a fragmented Cubist painting, it attempts to re-arrange the pieces and question the result in ways we never imagined possible.

Told through the eyes of a young Chinese actress named Wong Chia-Chi (Tang Wei), Lust, Caution begins with a flashback, taking us from a cafeacute; in Shanghai to the outskirts of China during WWII a few years earlier, where the Japanese occupation has already begun.

In an act of defiance, Wong Chia-Chi joins a pro-Chinese theatre troupe that plans to assassinate the traitorous Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), a heartless politician who does dirty work for the Japanese. The actress, bitter from her father's recent abandonment and desperate for affection in any form, agrees to seduce Yee.

The relationship that unfolds in the next two hours is shocking and difficult to categorize, mainly because the audience cannot tell whether Yee and Wong Chia Chi love or loathe one another.

Ang Lee presents a variety of extremely explicit sex scenes that vacillate between brutal sado-masochism and tender love making, each scene adding greater dimension and complexity to the relationship. We never really know if Wong Chia Chi feels compassion for Yee or whether her emotions are a total illusion, masked and perfected by a brilliant stage actress.

Yee also remains an entirely elusive character to the film's end credits. We know that he is violent and cruel, but is he still capable of loving a woman he suspects in his heart of being untrue?

Ang Lee never gives us any answers. He swamps us with questions that go beyond his protagonist's troubling affair. In times of war, is violence and self-destruction the only form of love we can relate to? Can a country (represented by Wong) and the people in it maintain its own identity and sense of self when it is being overturned by brutal outside forces (embodied by Yee)? Lee even ponders whether we all have to act on some level when we agree to love one another, and whether the concept of love is as honest and true as people make it out to be.

These and many more questions linger past the final frame of Lust, Caution, leaving one both profoundly moved and disturbed.

More so than any other film he has made, Ang Lee teases the audience into yearning for a happy ending that he never delivers.

What we're given instead is more potent and effective: an elusive and constantly evolving work of art that thrives off contemplation rather than conclusiveness.

Why the critics found Lee's film distasteful despite such a display of directoral mastery only adds to the great mystery that is this wonderfully enigmatic film.