I want to like this film. I really do. It is visually splendid. It is subtle
and sophisticated. It offers great insight into the sights and sounds and
attitudes or another culture in another time. It has some very hot sex scenes.
That's a checklist of movie elements I love, but I just can't bring myself to
summon up any enthusiasm for it. It drags on and on and on.
Ang Lee's NC-17 "thriller" about the Japanese occupation of China in WW2 is
160 minutes long, and it begins with a Mah-Jongg game that is - oh, without
looking at the DVD timer, I'm going to say 145 minutes long. But it's really a
beautiful Mah-Jongg game. Probably the best Mah-Jongg game ever filmed. Pretty
tiles! The women who are playing the game wear beautiful dresses. Everyone
exchanges mysterious glances, the players cast their eyes on other players. Some
of the other players meet their eyes, while others smoke mysteriously and avert
their glances. Some of the players exchange glances with a man who observes the
game. He is married to one of the women, but exchanges more glances with a
younger women. Close-ups of hands and tiles. More glances. More tiles. I'm going
to go out on a limb and say that this film is the Citizen Kane of NC-17
Mah-Jongg movies. This film is to Mah-Jongg as The Brown Bunny is to traffic.
But it's not all Mah-Jongg, nosiree. The game is followed by a flashback to a
few minutes of sex, then back to the game, then kind of a surprise ending. I
don't want to spoil the ending for you if you wait all 160 minutes for it, but
suffice it to say that one of the Mah-Jongg players plays a really unexpected
tile. And with a really subtle glance!
I'm exaggerating, of course. The film is really an Asian equivalent to Paul Verheoven's Black Book. Both films are about a WW2 occupation (the Nazis in
Holland, the Japanese in China). In both cases, the resistance enlists a virgin
in the entertainment field to seduce a high-ranking politico (a Nazi in one, a
collaborator in the other). In both cases, the virgin will be required to have
hot sex with her pigeon, and will therefore have to be "broken in" by fellow
members of the resistance before she can begin her assignment. In both cases,
the woman ends up falling for the man she is assigned to seduce. The films have
other common elements. The lead actress in both cases has an extremely demanding
role that requires a wide range of talents, and a willingness to do some
extensive nudity and vigorous sex scenes.
Beyond the point I have described, the stories diverge considerably, both in
terms of the plot points and the sensibility of the films. Verhoeven's film
really is a pulpy thriller which maintains a rapid pace and is filled with
action, suspense, and plot twists. It is also a film which encompasses a wide
range of tone shifts. Ang Lee's self-important film is really a somber, one-note
philosophical drama which focuses on atmosphere and characterization and an
examination of the nature of love. If you watch it thinking you're going to see
a sexy thriller, you will probably find yourself asleep in your chair after
about an hour, during which there have been no thrills and no sex.
Unless you're into Mah-Jongg. If you love Mah-Jongg the way I love baseball,
this is your Bull Durham, The Natural, and Field of Dreams rolled into one!
Lust, Caution is based upon a novella that was begun not long after the
events pictured in the film. It was published in 1979, but Ellen Chang said that
she had been working on it for a quarter of a century before that, even though
it is a very short and ambiguous work. Hey, ambiguity is difficult to do well.
Ang Lee tried to turn that ambiguity into a concrete storyline without losing
its subtlety. The problem is that there is a point beyond which subtlety is
simply tedious, and this film tends to cross it.
But what beautiful tedium!