There are moments in Ang Lee's new movie when you'd swear you were watching a film by Hong Kong enfant terrible de jour Wong Kar Wei — 2046, maybe, or most likely In the Mood for Love. From its willowy women in elegant, high-necked dresses, to the curiously Anglicized retro-pop soundtrack, to the overall ambience of doomed romance and bittersweet nostalgia, Lust, Caution sometimes seems situated less on Lee's turf than in territory frequently mined by Wong. And just to seal the deal, Ang even borrows the director's frequent collaborator, Tony Leung, star of no less than six key Wong films.
But despite the nods to an edgier sort of cinema — and roughly 10 minutes of hot and extremely well-publicized sex — Lee's Lust, Caution is basically a pretty conventional, albeit handsomely mounted, period piece with the sort of firm psychological roots and linear plotting that the ultra-artsy Wong typically eschews. There's also copious political intrigue here, a dash of noir, some odd but understandable emotional heat and more Mahjong playing than a community center full of Jewish grandmothers.
Set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai toward the end of World War II, Lee's film follows a group of politically engaged Chinese college students as they make the leap from staging nationalistic theater productions to some real-life play-acting aimed at assassinating a high-ranking traitor (Leung) who's collaborating with the Japanese. The student's mission hinges on placing a beautiful female (Wei Tang) within Leung's inner circle in order to seduce him, but things get muddy when the Chinese Mata Hari becomes a little too close to her target and finds herself converted by the power of rough sex.
Lust, Caution is as carefully modulated and meticulously constructed as anything Lee's done, but when the violence erupts the film can be genuinely jarring. Ditto for the occasional bursts of sex, which flash upon the screen with an unmediated intensity not normally associated with this director. More than the flesh on display, though, what really gives the movie its punch is that both of the characters seem to realize they're fornicating with their worst nightmare, edging the film into a kinky subcategory of movies including The Night Porter and Last Tango in Paris.
Lust, Caution (NC-17) Stars Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Wei Tang, Joan Chen, Lee-Horn Wang and Chung Hua Tou. Opens Oct. 26 at local theaters. 3.5 stars