Early in the movie, Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) gets asked to act in a patriotic play, in a time when China was threatened by the Japanese Invasion during the late 30s/early 40s. Little does she know that she's got to carry on acting the rest of her life, together with her group of idealistic young dramatists, as stage feelings stirred up real emotions that calls for the sacrificial of self for the greater good, for the country. What they lack in experience, they make up with their youthful passion and exuberance. And their rawness shows in the way they clumsily set up their traps for the coming of the prey, and fumbling even with their first blood.
Welcome to Lee Ang's world of espionage. It's not glam, and gets draped in many real world sense and sensibilities. We enter a world where Trust and Loyalty are difficult to come by, and with shadows lurking in every corner, waiting to pounce at the slightest of mistakes. But the darkness is beautifully captured, and like its endless rounds of mahjong, you're waiting for that perfect tile to come your way, for the opportune to present itself, for the East Wind to come about. That's how this movie's espionage theme is played out, with plenty of waiting. Instant results and instant gratification do not come easy, and even the finale I found to be less than satisfying, though it provided subtle avenues to keep your imagination running as to how the turn of events have greatly affected the usually cautious Mr Yee (Tony Leung).
Like the movie, Leung's Mr Yee remains an enigma we are trying to have a crack at, trying to, like the rest, understand his secret life. He sneaks around from fort to fort, always with protection, and has this solid wall build around his personal life, that even his wife (Joan Chen) finds hard to break, and letting it be anyway, enjoying luxurious life as a tai-tai. All we know about Yee, is that he's a Chinese traitor in the employment of the Japanese, while enjoying immense power under the protection of his master, readily bolts like a running dog that he is in the first signs of trouble.
Enter Tang Wei's Chia Chi, in a strategy hundreds of years old, and that is to use the lure of the beauty to provide the downfall of powerful generals. As a fresh faced ingénue, she enters the dangerous cat and mouse game at great personal sacrifice, probing cautiously (that's the word again) into the life of Mr Yee, and casting those come hither eyes as bait to lure her prey, relying on others to provide the finishing blow and save her from his evil roaming clutches. In order to enter his circle of trust, she has to play to the sadistic sexual fantasies (you see, I don't think he gets any from Mrs Yee anyway) of a repressed man using her as an avenue to release those pent up rage and frustrations from work, where his job as we know is to interrogate fellow countrymen. It's not a glam job, especially when you're casting your lot with the underdogs.
Lust, Caution is a tale of two lonely people, forced by circumstances to do what they have to. One, to fulfill her ideology and get rid of possibly one of the most dangerous man to the Chinese, while the other, looking for honest companionship. It's falling for and sleeping with the enemy both ways, and in a time where trust is hard pressed, this makes everything more complex, especially when it comes to irrational emotions that overrule logic and guard. It's layered with plenty of betrayals whichever way you look at it, and the narrative kept pace by unfolding each
layer intricately. Which makes it ultimately a very sad love that couldn't be story, the perennial fib to reality.
Tony being Tony, I can't help but think that with his hair slicked back, and his stoic demeanor in well pressed suits, look the more vengeful version of his Mr Chow from In the Mood for Love, though this time round he really gets it on with another married woman Mrs Mak, Chia Chi's alter-ego. He might be sleepwalking through his role here, as he speaks very little and does even less, but comes alive in his scenes toward the end. LeeHom is rather wooden though as the de-factor youth leader, and his romantic moments with Tang Wei just falls flat given that it's not fully developed here, if not for the focus of love between Mr Yee and Mrs Mak.
Like how Lee Ang shot Zhang Ziyi to prominence with her role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as a headstrong young woman who comes of age, Tang Wei snags a role as such and it wouldn't be much of a surprise should she gain acclaim and recognition for her role here. She switches between the greenhorn student and one who's living a lie quite easily, and she exhibits linguistic skills (English, Cantonese, Mandarin and even Shanghainese) and even talent for song. Watch those eyes of hers, and her rant during breaking point, excellent stuff.
Lust, Caution is an espionage story that works, and being set in a tumultuous era helped loads in the eagerness and sense of urgency required, and how patience in getting everything set up for that one shot one kill opportunity makes it a constant tussle, both for the characters, and how events get played out.