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Lust, Caution

Focus Features

Review in a Hurry:  It's Spy vs. Guy in wartime Shanghai, starring Tang Wei as the femme fatale helping to plot the assassination of a top Japanese collaborator (Tony Leung). A spy-who-loved-me story reminiscent of Notorious (had Hitchcock added S&M sex), the NC-17 Lust is lush and seductive. But it's also hit-and-miss, more successful as an erotic drama than espionage thriller.  

The Bigger Picture:  On the surface, this WWII-era, multilingual melodrama seems worlds away from director Ang Lee's last film, Brokeback Mountain, which justifiably garnered gobs of awards (except the Best Pic Oscar—still bitter over here). But he's revisiting thematic territory, exploring how characters' true natures are suppressed by assumed roles—in family, in society, in the bedroom. Though Lee's Lust never matches Mountain's emotional heights, it still provides a number of pleasures—if you can handle the 158-minute running time.

In this adaptation of Eileen Chang's short story, university freshman Wong Chia Chi (Wei) joins a small, radical group of students led by Kuang Yu Min (Wang Leehorn). Adhering to their plan to off traitorous Mr. Yee (Leung), Wong plays the part of an aristocrat, befriends Yee's wife (Joan Chen), and attempts to seduce the hubby. But when things go violently awry, Wong flees to Hong Kong.

Years later, with no end in sight for the Japanese occupation, Wong joins the organized resistance and reprises her earlier role to ensnare Mr. Yee. This time, she engages in a torrid affair with her dangerous prey, and that means lots of kiss kiss, bang bang!

Wong's transformation from theater-loving schoolgirl to International Woman of Mystery should be more clearly dramatized. Her relationship with Kuang remains underdeveloped, and the flat assassination storyline never again reaches the intensity of the brutal murder near the halfway point. But the cinematography and production design are exquisite, and Lee lingers on the sensuous details—lipstick marks on coffee cups, privileged ladies clicking mahjong tiles, smoldering looks over cigarettes, etc.

Striking newcomer Wei holds her own opposite international star Leung, who conveys sympathetic levels of his baddie. And their explicit sex? Never gratuitous, these steamy scenes are rough and raw and emotionally naked, achingly so. 

The 180—a Second Opinion:  With all the graphic, savage shagging, Lust probably isn't the best choice for a first-date movie (unless that personal ad revealed a penchant for belts and beating). Could be awkward!