Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Ambition, Beauty

Lust, Caution is so much more than I expected it to be, and what I got out of it was nothing short of amazing. I'm not sure why my expectations weren't higher - Ang Lee only made one of my favorite films of all time, Brokeback Mountain. Lust, Caution isn't a masterpiece like Brokeback Mountain. Wait, maybe that isn't fair. I shouldn't use Brokeback Mountain as a measuring tool, because nothing else would ever have a chance. It's just too special to me. Lust, Caution is excellent in its own right. And really, the two films are so different that it's hard to compare. Actually, all of Ang Lee's movies are different from one another - he surprises me every time with his versatility. He very recently touched my heart with Brokeback Mountain, and he's done it again with Lust, Caution.

Lust, Caution is indeed the infamous film that received the dreaded- gasp - NC-17 rating for explicit sex. I respect Ang Lee so much for not compromising his vision and making this an R-rated film. In fact, I applaud him. The rating system is so messed up anyway. Violence is more acceptable than sex? What? How warped. I guess I agree with the NC-17 rating, because the sex is definitely graphic, yet how this gets slapped with an NC-17 and so many brutally violent films slide by with an R boggles my mind. I love Teeth. That's not a secret. But Teeth is as graphic in its depiction of violence (and the violence is sexual in nature, too) as Lust, Caution is graphic in its representation of sexuality. There are countless other violent examples. It just sickens me. It's not fair. America is so afraid of sex. The sex in Lust, Caution is not gratuitous at all. Every single scene involving sex advances the plot and enhances character development. There's a physical level to the sex, obviously, but there's also an emotional one. How Lee combines the two is exquisite. The sex is absolutely essential to the film. Bravo, Ang Lee.

Lust, Caution has gotten a raw deal, from the pitiful distribution based upon the rating to virtually no discussions of it other than accusations of sensationalism. Even when people were roaring about the sex, that passed by relatively quickly. The film has been misunderstood, overlooked, and forgotten, and I think that's tragic. It's an astonishing achievement. I'm reluctant to give too much away plot-wise, so all you need to know (I'm hoping to entice you into seeing it anyway) is that the film is set during World War II, in Japanese-occupied China, mainly Shanghai, and Tang Wei stars as Wong Chia Chi, a young Chinese woman who, along with five other college students, joins the resistance movement. Among many other people, the resistance plans to assassinate Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), a Chinese man working with the Japanese. Wong Chia Chi works as a spy and seduces him. I won't reveal anything else, but I'll give you a clue: It's not called Lust, Caution for nothing.

People utilize the expression "This film has everything" so often that I think it loses some of its impact. When I use it, I really mean it. I'm going to say it now about Lust, Caution. This film has everything. It really does. History, war, intrigue, suspense, action, sex, violence, drama, humor, friendship, danger, love and, of course, lust. It might be too slow-moving for some people's tastes, but if you stick with it, it's a very satisfying journey. I call it pacing, but I understand how it could be frustrating. I even had a little trouble getting into it for the first half hour or so, but once I was in, I was hooked. The story is so wonderfully complex, and I promise that you'll never guess how it'll play out. It's surprising and shocking all the way to the very end.

I've actually watched the film twice now, and it only got better the second time. I KNEW what was going to happen, but I was somehow even more riveted and anxious and on the edge of my seat with suspense. It was like a trance. For about the last 45 minutes, I was gripping my right arm with my left hand so hard that I was actually digging my nails into my flesh and causing pain, and I didn't even realize it. Lust, Caution affected me that viscerally. The ending is one of the best and most effective I've ever seen. I felt like the wind was knocked out of me, and my heart was beating out of my chest. It hit me really hard emotionally, tears and all. It's an extremely subtle film, but it's also dynamically powerful.

Ang Lee is an extraordinary filmmaker. He exercises such control over this complicated, intense story. To pull it off required incredible finesse, sensitivity, and dedication on his part. Lee has a distinct, delicate touch, but there's also an urgency and exhilaration about his directing. In many ways, he's as dichotomous as the the titular themes. Every minute detail has been planned and has a purpose. It's glorious. Lust, Caution is absolutely GORGEOUS. It's just heavenly to look at. The cinematography by the insanely gifted Rodrigo Prieto is breathtaking. The colors are dazzling, and the compositions are rich and layered. You can tell that Prieto and Lee have a wonderful collaborative relationship, because they create magic together. The production design is outstanding. I felt like I was transported back to 1940s Shanghai. A world that actually existed has been stunningly recreated. The costumes are also great, and Lai Pan did the costumes AND production design, so that's awesome. The screenplay by James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang is phenomenal, especially considering this epic film is based upon Eileen Chang's very short story.

The whole time that I've been writing this review, and it's been awhile, I assure you, I've been listening to the Lust, Caution score, composed by the genius Alexandre Desplat. I'm almost done with my second spin. Something has actually dethroned The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford as my favorite score of 2007. It's more than that, though - it's one of my favorites ever. It's so beautiful! The main theme is haunting and lovely, and his use of leitmotifs is divine. I love every single one of the 23 tracks he composed. I'm not sure that's ever happened for me with a score before. The music simultaneously gives me chills and melts my heart. It's perfect. Um, Oscar nomination? Anyone? Sheesh. Amateurs. Anyway, I don't know if heaven exists, but if it does, Desplat's score for Lust, Caution is what they would play there.

The two main characters played by Tang Wei and Tony Leung are extremely fascinating, but they wouldn't be half as interesting or sympathetic as they are without exactly the right casting and execution. Well, the casting and execution are impeccable. It's a tribute to the actors, for sure, but also to Ang Lee's instincts, knowledge, and skill. It's obvious that he's a remarkable director because the acting is as good as it gets. This is Tang Wei's FIRST film, and she's dynamite. I can't believe that she never acted before. She's a marvel. It's such a brave, passionate, skilled performance of a really demanding role. It's a crime that she's been blacklisted in China for playing this part. I sincerely hope things work out for her, because she's a huge talent. Lee-Hom Wang is another standout, and another newcomer to acting (he's apparently, like, the biggest pop star in Asia, which is a fun fact) as Kuang, Wong Chia Chi's closest friend in the resistance. And he's a total babe. Tony Leung is brilliant as Mr. Yee. My vocabulary is really good, but I'm worried that I'm running out of adjectives here. Leung is one of the most talented and prolific Chinese stars ever. I guess he had mainly played good guys or romantic leads before, so this was a total departure, according to Leung himself in the making-of featurette. Lee saw something amazing in him to realize that he could play such an angry, morally conflicted, carnal, ferocious character. He's quite terrifying at times. Tony Leung is fire on the screen. Like Tang Wei, he communicates so much with just his eyes. But then he has these tender moments that make me swoon from his poignancy and subtley. Tang Wei and Tony Leung make their flawed characters so real and memorable, and they both deliver multi-faceted, nuanced, courageous, beautiful, heartbreaking performances. No other actors could have done what they did. The acting in Lust, Caution is invigorating.

I adore Ang Lee. I really admire his intention of bridging the past with the present and connecting generations. He's done something so unique by taking a culture that is usually depicted as modest and repressed and proving, fiercely and unflinchingly, that people are the same everywhere. East, west, whatever. Boundaries mean nothing. This is probably his most personal project, and it's a knockout. He should be extremely proud. His passion and commitment to the subject and to the art of cinema in general are so inspiring. With Lust, Caution, he explores themes that are epic as well as intimate, controversial as well as relatable, and all deeply profound, universal, timeless, and human. At its essence, Lust, Caution is about what it means to be a human being and all of the heartache, terror, pain, confusion, happiness, and ecstasy that it encompasses.

You know, when I started this review, I was planning on giving Lust, Caution four stars out of five. I said it wasn't a masterpiece like Brokeback Mountain. I was wrong. It's just as much of a masterpiece, in its own way, as Brokeback Mountain. While Brokeback Mountain is my personal favorite of Lee's work and nothing can ever replace it in my heart, I don't think I was giving Lust, Caution a fair shake with that initial rating. Actually, I don't think I was being unfair; I just didn't know how deeply this film had penetrated me.

As I've been writing and writing, and loving every second of it, and examining my feelings and just allowing the film to consume me, my appreciation for it has been growing and blossoming. I think I've been experiencing a cinematic epiphany, right before my own eyes. I attained a sublime, pure state of being and became so wonderfully in tune with myself in this post. I was able to watch my thoughts unfold in surprising, gratifying ways. What a rare, amazing thing to happen. I certainly didn't expect anything like it when I started out. I was holding back somehow, and I wasn't even aware of it. I had yet to discover my true reaction to the film, and now that I have, I almost want to weep with joy. I guess I could classify this revelation as spiritual. After all, cinema is my only true religion. During this process, I realized that I like Lust, Caution a hell of a lot more than I thought I did. I mean, I really liked it before, but I'm throwing caution to the wind - I am madly in love with this beautiful film.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)
- In light of this review and the film's rating, I was forced to alter my Top 20 of 2007 list one last time. It was totally unexpected. Much to my surprise and delight, Lust, Caution made the cut.

1 comment:

Bill Treadway said...

This is your best work to date- so incredibly detailed and passionate.

Keep up the great work- for I believe the name Lisa Draski will be mentioned in the same breath as Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael one day...