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Lust, Caution | Review

Keeping your enemies closer: Lee’s Shanghai showdown is short on thrills.

A case study on how to weaken your enemy by making them into a bed partner, after the forbidden love of the bare back kind in Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee mounts an ambitious period piece where prohibited passion is perhaps as lethal than a poisoned tipped pen. Grabbing top honors at the Venice Film Festival for the Golden Lion and the Golden Osella for Best Cinematography, Lust, Caution gets high marks for production value but its no fluke that a word like ‘caution’ finds itself in the title – you’d hardly know that this is based on a short story with the excruciatingly marathon-long runtime and a pure lack of focus.

Based on Eileen Chang’s short, Lee’s return to foreign language turf looks at how Japan’s World War II occupation of 42’s Shanghai was met with pockets of resistance. Curiously, this looks at a stage acting troupe of students that plot against the aggressors in the same manner you’d script a new play: create a scenario, create a back story for your main female character and hours of repetition in learning to play the part. Tang Wei plays the role of the inexperienced Venus flytrap whose soul goal is to seep into mindset of a high ranking foe played by Tony Leung. Utilizing the flashback form to open this can of worms and commencing with a 15-minute opening game of mahjong (the equivanet to dominos), Lee succeeds in excessively detailing the elements of the plot: every narrative intricacy, thematic element, character nuance and even the protagonist’s resisting, and then wanting to spread her legs is overly explained. The plans to incapacitate the high ranking character played by Leung are sabotaged, but more frustrating to the viewer than waiting for the second attempt at a first chance for the ultimate kill is a desperate lack in the design of this film. Even after more than 2 hours, the characters remain impenetrable – too bad since the pair have the common trait of leading double lives, and a pending sense danger never takes form.

Slapped with an NC-17 rating, explicit use of violence and sex in a trio of sequences might provisionally titillate, but viewers expecting to be moved by Lee like they were in 2006, will find that there is not much transpiring in this stylized and slow-paced spy game – it’s almost as if Lee tries to start up the engine of this period espionage thriller without bothering to put the keys in the ignition. Narratives featuring women sleeping with the enemy during war conflicts are a dime a dozen, unfortunately in an effort to tantalize and scandalize the film’s major jolts do little to break the monotone feel of the film.

Despite the fact that this East vs. West face-off sometimes suffers from an artificial Hollywood studio lot look, the flawlessly costumed characters in affluent garb and beautifully lensed interiors and exteriors by Rodrigo Prieto provide the film with some sort of visual appeal. While Lee makes a case for how tediously long it can be to plot against your enemies, Lust, Caution is made more difficult to suggest as a detour for history buffs who want to know the subtleties of how Shanghai tussled with its aggressors and no need in pointing out that it doesn’t work as a romance pic either.


Viewed in original French language. Reviewed on September 6th at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival.

Rating 2.5 stars

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Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist and critic at (founded in 2000). Eric is a regular at Sundance, Cannes and TIFF. He has a BFA in Film Studies at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013 he served as a Narrative Competition Jury Member at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson's This Teacher (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022 he served as a New Flesh Comp for Best First Feature at the 2022 Fantasia Intl. Film Festival. Current top films for 2022 include Tár (Todd Field), All That Breathes (Shaunak Sen), Aftersun (Charlotte Wells).

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