Saturday, October 06, 2007

Chicago Film Festival, Appetizer Course: Lust, Caution

Ang Lee's Lust, Caution is not technically part of the Chicago Film Festival; it just happens that the film opened commercially in Chicago on the first full day of the festival, so a funny thing happened on the way to the evening screenings and I snuck in a Lust, Caution showing on my way downtown from work. Frankly, I haven't been all that enthusiastic about this one, since I'm almost always lukewarm about Lee's decorous direction and his almost self-consciously tangential relationships to the stories and genres he tackles from film to film. One of the distinguishing marks of Lust, Caution, though, is that it turns so many of its potential vices and pitfalls into virtues. For instance, Lee's muted, middlebrow personality as a director winds up suiting the many, teasing layers of guile, secrecy, and cool impersonation in the film. The tired cliché of the actress with a knack for deception, self- and otherwise, takes organic and plausible shape within the script rather than sliding off the wire-rack of old storytelling truisms. Hollywood's millionth quantum leap back into World War II keeps uniforms, phalanxes, and battlefields almost entirely off-screen in favor of an unusually subtle look at the sociology of foreign occupation and the psychology of resistance. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who softened the edges of his typical style for Lee's Brokeback Mountain, reprises that film's formal elegance but finds welcome opportunities for the restive verve and eye-popping color he brought to Spike Lee's 25th Hour. Tony Leung Chiu Wai, whose rueful suavity was becoming overfamiliar, uncorks a blistering, barely contained nastiness that Richard Widmark would have admired, but even he is outshone by newcomer Tang Wei in the starring role. Tang has to age persuasively, communicate silently, smile demurely, screw acrobatically, and, hardest of all, graduate on-screen from a neophyte actress (without overplaying the awkwardness) to a seamless role-player (without letting us forget that she's acting or lose sight of the high stakes for the woman behind the mask).

All of these demands Tang rewards with mystery, depth, and panache, and she does so without delivering a coy, hackneyed portrait of the exoticized Oriental artifact (as Wong Kar-wai increasingly allows his actresses to do). The actress judges her expressions and movements as precisely as Lee orchestrates light, rhythm, and the frugal but exceptional score by Alexandre Desplat. The story never plumbs as deeply as the cast and other artists imply that they could happily and easily venture, and despite the heroic feat of making a 160-minute movie breeze right by without sacrificing emotional clarity, editor Tim Squyres lapses a few times into an antic, overly intrusive mode that hyperbolizes some testy games of mah-jongg and a few violent showdowns. Plus, I'm still waiting for Lee to fight his impulses toward elegant outsiderism and really dig into the perspectives of his characters—a trick he almost managed with the revelatory fight sequences of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and with the elaborately self-conscious characters of Sense and Sensibility, for whom the boundary between inner life and external codes of conduct existed only sporadically. Still, Lust, Caution spins a satisfying and surprising yarn, and the formal and visual motifs are more ambitious and ambiguous here—for example, not just recurring mirrors, but excitable camera movements in relation to those mirrors—than anything in Brokeback (a film whose cautious relation to the lust between Ennis and Jack, elided in favor of serial goodbyes and accumulating subplots, is more than compensated here). I'll be lucky if the festival yields even two or three films as strong and refreshingly confident as this one. B+

Photo © 2007 Focus Features/River Road Entertainment

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Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

i'm so pleased you liked this. The reviews have been strange...
and Wei really is something, isn't she?

10:49 PM, October 06, 2007  
Blogger John said...

Wei is exceptional in this movie, though I am one of the camp that loves most of Lee's films. He recalls so much of David Lean, another director that I admire, though he rarely centralizes so thoroughly on the main protagonist like Lean does in virtually every single one of his films. I think the ending was fine, but could have been better-I felt satisfied, but know that I could have been profoundly moved had Lee been a bit more reserved with the ending.

3:18 PM, October 07, 2007  

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