Yes, this is the Ang Lee movie notoriously rated NC-17 for, ahem “explicit sexuality” — no children admitted in the name of American squeamishness! What that means as far as Lust, Caution is concerned: a man and a woman have sex in bed, and they’re equally naked. There’s none of this coy “let’s make love mostly dressed,” and no appearance from the mysterious L-shaped sheet that exists only on TV and in the movies. There’s no pretending that what’s going on is not hot, sweaty, passionate, grownup sex.
Whether the sexist, prudish MPAA grants an R rating or an NC-17 can depend very much on whether the performer who is fully nude and vulnerable is male or female. Totally naked chicks? Woo-hoo! Rate it R, which in practice means it’s acceptable for almost everyone (because have you ever been to an R-rated movie and not seen unaccompanied minors in attendance?). Dudes with all their bits hanging out? Oh, dear, no, we must not expose the children! Among the many, many ludicrous ironies of the MPAA’s twisted collective psyche, though, is this: What is graphic and raw and adult and disturbing about Lust, Caution is not whose bits we get to see and what those bits do in front of the camera. What is graphic and raw and adult and disturbing are the roiling, dangerous emotions underlying the hot, sweaty, etc sex and everything that leads up to it and everything that occurs outside of the bedroom because of it.
It’s WWII in Asia, and there’s all the hot, sweaty sex, but the Ang Lee flick this is most like is 1995’s Sense and Sensibility, actually: it’s all about how love and desire can drive us to do some things we might not expect of ourselves, and of others. In 1938, the Japanese are occupying China, and bookish Wong Chia Chi (newcomer Tang Wei, a real find on Lee’s part) joins her university drama group and discovers her calling as an actress. But the leader of the troupe, Kuang Yu Min (Wang Leehom, who’s a huge pop star in Asia, even though he’s a native of Rochester, New York), has bigger ideas for all their talents — and especially Wong’s — beyond the patriotic plays they’ve been mounting. They’re going to create a grand charade the goal of which is to assassinate a Japanese collaborator, Mr. Yee (Asian-movie superstar Tony Leung: Infernal Affairs, Hero). Wong will become the wealthy lady Mrs. Mak, infiltrate Yee’s society, then seduce him into an affair. From there, seems to be the idea of these naive idealists, taking him out will be easy.
Nothing is easy, of course, not when such things are in play, and Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Hulk) — working from a story by beloved Chinese writer Eileen Chang — weaves suspense and a simmer of unease that threatens to boil over into sheer terror out of every moment. The film opens with a mah-jong game at which “Mrs. Mak,” Yee’s wife (Joan Chen: The Last Emperor), and two other ladies gossip and drink tea, and before we’ve even learned — which we’ll do during an extended flashback — that Mrs. Mak is a deception, we sense the barely hidden anxiety of the moment. That sets the stage, literally and metaphorically, for the entire film: deception, fear, and treachery vie with passion for emotional dominance.
No, actually, they’re part and parcel of the passion: in how easily Wong is able to transform herself from shy, virginal student to worldy wise seductress; in how Kuang, who of course secretly carries a torch for Wong, descends into jealousy and resentment when “Mrs. Mak” is entirely too successful in her love-ruse with Yee. And then there’s this question, raised merely by nuance and undertone: How much of what Wong is up to is, in fact, merely a ruse? Does she really fall in love, or at least in lust, with Yee? Does the mask of “Mrs. Mak” allow her to indulge herself in ways she might not as herself?
None of the students — not Wong, not Kuang, not their fellow players — realize how serious their game is until it’s way more serious than they could ever have imagined. That terror that I mentioned? It’s a fear not just that Wong will be found out or that some detail of the assassination plot will go awry — though there is that, too — but fear of a far more insidious kind: that strong emotion and crushing passion will transform them into someone we no longer recognize, someone we no longer like. But that fear is really about ourselves, and what a perilous thing our emotions can be.