Lust, Caution

A Cautionary Tale

"Lechery, by this hand; an index and obscure prologue to the history of lust and foul thoughts. They met so near with their lips that their breaths embraced together." Iago in Othello

When American films play in Asia, often the titles translate into literal plot points, such as the translation of The Crying Game: My Girlfriend has a Penis! It's fitting, therefore, that Ang Lee's new film should be translated into the essence of a sexy thriller: Lust, Caution. A cautionary tale about lust, to be sure.

Chih-ying Chu (Tang Wei) joins a group of actor activists in WWII China who support the resistance against the Japanese occupation by plotting the death of sympathizer Mr. Lee (Tony Leung) using Chu as romantic bait. The title takes over, and much as in last year's Black Book, our heroine gets too attached to her target. As in Book, lust makes eliminating the lover/target a problem.

The sexual vitality deservedly occupies center stage in the buzz about Lee's film. Rightly so. The leads engage in graphic sex, without visible penetration, that makes even a semi-observant audience wonder if they really are getting it on (as opposed to Wild Orchid, in which the actors admitted to doing it). Well, they're actors, and Lee is nothing if not a visual virtuoso (Crouching Tiger), so we'll never know?but they are good actors, right down to her appropriately responsive mammary glands.

The real interest for those of us who have seen a thing or two in our lifetimes is whether or not emotional bonding and sacrifice support the self-destructive carnality. I just didn't see much beyond the sex, and maybe that's Lee's point: Lust should bring caution, but not necessarily emotional bonding. The leads just don't have much to say to each other, so the lovemaking and limited facial expressions have to tell most of the connection. Asian films can be lean on verbal expressions, so I'm lost in their wondering where the words went.