Ang Lee's Chinese spy drama Lust, Caution is notorious already—maybe unduly—for the explicit sex scenes between its co-stars. Tony Leung plays a Shanghai official in the early '40s, working with the occupying Japanese, and Tang Wei plays a resistance agent who tries to get closer to him by acting the coy seductress. Only when Leung finally gets her alone, he ravages her, and in the sequences that follow, the audience sees more or less every inch of their respective anatomies, in violent collision. What we don't see is actual insertion, which means the two actors have to contort themselves to display as much flesh as possible without crossing over to pornography. Which means their lovemaking looks a little off. Unless Wei has an orifice in the small of her back, neither lover should be getting much satisfaction.
That's more or less the way it goes with the rest of Lust, Caution too. Everything about the movie looks right, and all the necessary plot points are on the screen, and yet the feeling isn't quite there. Lee and his regular screenwriting team of James Schamus and Wang Hui-Ling—adapting a story by Eileen Chang—delve deep into a study of World War II-era Shanghai and Hong Kong society, taking in the Chinese aristocracy's complicity with their Japanese invaders, the idealism of the student resistance, and the stamp of Western colonialism that has everyone dressing, eating, and conversing like Londoners. At first, Wei and her young rebels treat the prospect of luring and assassinating a traitor as a theoretical act, a lot like the agit-prop plays they stage as part of their university's theater department. Then they step on the wrong toes, and have to grow up in a hurry, under a barrage of body-blows.
Conceptually, Lust, Caution has been thoroughly thought-through, down to every lipstick stain Wei leaves on her teacups. And maybe that's what keeps the film from becoming truly affecting. Lee presents two people who get something very specific out of a relationship built on deceit, danger, and pain, but unlike with his Brokeback Mountain, which made fleeting moments of pleasure and freedom look like something worth risking scorn and even death for, Lee has a hard time conveying exactly what draws Wei and Leung together. He does better when he leaves the bedroom and returns to the increasingly cramped and sweaty offices of outmatched revolutionaries. What passes for relatable emotion in Lust, Caution comes through in mounting frustration that explodes into anger, and the revelation that once you lift a knife, it's hard to stop stabbing.