I saw the film yesterday with my boyfriend and totally enjoyed it throughout the two and half hours.
As always, Ang Lee is a superb storyteller. Even though the subject is not new in Hollywood (a romantic thriller in a war background), Ang Lee was able to build the plot and characters in a very believable way with plenty of twists and details that keep the audience absorbed. What started out as a group of students' patriotic attempt to kill a bad guy in a short summer gradually spinned out of control and took them to a 3-year journey full of blood and ended with death. The turning point was the killing of Tsao - Mr. Yee's underling who threatened to tell on them. It was the most raw and messy killing I've ever seen - Kuang took the first stab with trembling hands, but the guy wouldn't die. He stood up and began to walk toward the door. Everybody was terrified, but they had no choice. A second student ran up and gave another stab. The guy fell, blood flowing everywhere. Yet he stood up again and continued to move. Then came the third and fourth stab... until every student had blood on their hands. In that seemingly forever scene, the guy's eyes kept wide open as if he still believed he had a chance to live...
Tony played a very convincing character of Mr. Yee, from his first appearance emerging from the darkness of the secret police headquarter. Ang Lee didn't bother to show him performing a torture. In fact Mr. Yee was a man of few words and kept his face expressionless most of the time. However, if you look at his eyes, there is no mistake how evil and dangerous this man is. It's amazing how an actor can create such a powerful presence so subtly. Then as his relationship with Zhijia evolved, his other emotions were released the fear, desperation and self-hatred in his eyes became more and more apparent each time he made love with Jiazhi. A couple of times he even showed some soft feelings toward the woman. Toward the end of the movie he had the first sincere smile when Jizhia put on the diamond ring he gave her. Unfortunately that was the anti-climax of the story, as he immediately found out that he was betrayed and returned to his old role as a merciless executor. I like the ending. Instead of the Hollywood rule of a final twist of luck (i.e. the princess got rescued), Mr. Yee let Zhijia and her group die immediately. It just befits his character and there could be no other way of telling the story in a realistic manner.
Zhijia's character is probably more complex in the way that it has evolved a lot over the years. She began as a simple, sweet school girl with a talent for drama. Then she stepped into Mrs. Mak's role. To accomplish the mission of assassination, she had to befriend Mrs. Yee, then seduce Mr. Yee and finally became his mistress. Each time she was forced to step up her performance. She portrayed a brave, calm, smart and seductive woman. Had it not being for the ending, I would be convinced that she was born to be an agent. Unfortunately, what happened to her proved how true it is that women are prone to be slave of emotions. She agreed to participate in the action largely under the charm of Kuang, a fellow young man full of passion. Three years later, as her relationship with Mr. Yee deepened, she admitted she got confused as Mrs. Mak, a woman falling in love, rather than an agent with a mission. She was breaking down as she succumbed to a powerful man both sexually and psychologically. In the final moment, she chose to save the life of the man she loved, despite the morality call and the unavoidable ending of herself and her fellow agents.
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