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Saturday, September 29, 2007

'Lust, Caution 色,戒' (The heavily censored version)

Lust, Caution is Ang Lee's first Chinese-language film since 2000's Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Some locations of the film were shot at Penang and Ipoh in Malaysia. The film's gotten quite a bit of attention over here ever since its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month, where it won the Golden Lion. Of course, the attention wasn't on it winning one of the film industry's most prestigious awards, but on the graphic sex scenes, a fact that Ang Lee himself hadn't been really happy about.

While adamant not to make any cuts for the film's US release (it will be rated NC-17). Longtime Ang Lee collaborator and Focus CEO James Schamus, who co-wrote the screenplay, said he is accepting the rating "without protest". "When we screened the final cut of this film, we knew we weren't going to change a frame," he said. "Every moment up on that screen works and is an integral part of the emotional arc of the characters. The MPAA has screened the film now and made its decision, and we're comfortable with that."

Even so, Ang Lee himself had snipped off 7 minutes worth of sex scenes (some reports claim that it's 30 minutes) for the version released in China to make it kiddie-friendly. And us folks in Malaysia are also getting this sex scene-less version of the film.

Guess none of us will be able to witness everything that's meant to be an integral part of the emotional arc of the characters... (Because of that, I saw many people at local internet forums asking and praying for an uncensored version of the film for download)

I admire Ang Lee, I generally like most of his works and I'm extremely impressed with his versatility. No two films of his are ever the same. He seldom recycles the same tricks. The fact that he is less showoffy , consciously artful and audacious earned him unjust criticism as a 'Taiwanese Ron Howard' (a vile insult, imo) who can only make 'accessible, middlebrow, populist entertainment' by some Hou Hsiao-Hsien/ Tsai Ming-Liang worshipers at Cinematical. (the site is a daily read, but the occasional Ang Lee pan often irked me).

Based on a 1950 short story by famed Chinese author Eileen Chang. LUST, CAUTION is set in the World War 2-era Hong Kong and Shanghai, and is about a group of Chinese university students led by Kuang Yumin (Wang Lee-Hom) plotting to kill a powerful Japanese conspirator Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) by using a young woman, Wang Jiazhi (Tang Wei) as a lure. Joan Chen is also in the movie as Mrs. Yee.

Told through a flashback (the beginning of the film is really the end of the film), we see how the innocent and naive Wang Jiazhi gets herself involved in the perilous mission to assassinate Mr. Yee. It's really like an undercover cop film in the vein of INFERNAL AFFAIRS, just that the 'mole' is a female instead, and how her mission is affecting her emotionally and psychologically, gradually we see her being pushed to the brink as she gets involved in a violent sadomasochistic sexual relationship with Mr. Yee. The fact that we don't actually get to see those sex scenes MAY actually have lessened the effect and coherence of the film, in my opinion.

The performances in the film are good. Newcomer Tang Wei is convincing when portraying Wang Jiazhie's gradual transformation from virginical non-smoking university student to emotionally troubled seductress/ spy. Guess Ang Lee had just discovered a new star. It was reported that Zhang Ziyi had actively pursued this role but I don't think she would have been right for the role. Wang Lee Hom is a little wooden, but fares better here than he did in the many crappy Hong Kong films he took. Despite having a minor role where she spends most of her scenes at the mahjong table, Joan Chen manages to show that Mrs. Yee is more than just a one-dimensional 'jealous and ignorant wife' character, especially in the ending, where I can see that Mrs. Yee may actually harbour secrets of her own.

It's usually a cliche to say in a film review that Tony Leung is the highlight of a film he's in, but he IS seriously good here as the menacing but dangerously charismatic Mr. Yee. In terms of appearance, he looks similar to his Mr. Chow character in the Wong Kar Wai films IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE and 2046, but his mannerisms here are much devious and imposing, we see the usual Tony Leung smile we are familiar with, but with a psychopathic edge.

Not a one-note villain but a complex 3-dimensional character, a lesser actor would have made Wang Jiazhi's gradual confusion and conflict of feelings with Mr. Yee unbelievable, but the unpredictability of Mr. Yee is what makes the film so engaging and suspenseful to me. Some audiences will find themselves not being able to guess Mr. Yee's next actions either.

Film is somewhat slow and plodding to some (sounds of yawning from a guy sitting few rows behind me can be heard), Bourne Ultimatum this ain't, but it's still does a good job at twisting usual espionage thriller genre conventions. Good filmmaking, good acting, production values are top-notch, the soundtrack by Desplat is really good, not a catastrophe as I've initially feared... in fact, it really comes off more as a pleasant surprise to me.

Tell me what you think of the film when you've seen it.

Trailer of Lust, Caution