Ang Lee may be the most interesting and gifted director alive today. He's done comedies of manners (Sense & Sensibility), comic book adaptations (Hulk), martial arts epics (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), trifling comedies (Taking Woodstock), and the quintessential gay romance of our times (Brokeback Mountain), amongst others. In 2007, he branched out even further, to the near-pornographically sexy Lust, Caution.
It must be said, right off the bat, that I'm a sucker for resistance stories about the amorality and difficult choices in occupied territory. World War II, with Germany and Japan trying to take over the world, is the best recent setting for such storytelling, although it's usually in Nazi-occupied territory like Paris. For Lust, Caution, Ang Lee chose Japanese occupied coastal China, which may arguably be even more fertile territory for storytelling.
20th-century China was a nation falling apart and constantly reinventing itself at the same time. The last imperial dynasty, the Qing, had been overthrown and replaced with a constitutional republic, which was threatened by warlord-based civil war as China had seen dozens of times in its between-dynasty history. As the republicans began to win the civil war, a new communist movement started gathering momentum, and the Japanese began to attack Chinese possessions in 1937, when the film begins. The film is set in Hong Kong and Shanghai, two major coastal cities which also served as two of the main entries for non-Chinese into China. Shanghai, in particular, was one of the cosmopolitan centers of East Asia, with enclaves of Japanese, American, English, German, French, and more inside the city. The political nature of the time and setting allowed a massive importation of "Western" ideas into China - republicanism and communism being two obvious examples.
The film begins with a flash-forward in which we meet the protagonist, Tang Wei, a student in Hong Kong. She and a friend are quickly recruited by a handsome man and a theater troupe. The politics of the main characters are quickly made apparent when the friend suggests they do a play of Henrik Ibsen's. Ibsen was a favorite around the world of those inclined towards republican and bourgeois ideals, especially in China. The young actor shoots this down as too bourgeois, and recommends a patriotic play to help China win the war, a tacky little piece of socialist realism that wins instant patriotic success. The little troupe doesn't want to just be actors, however, and begins to plot against traitorous collaborators.
Although the film doesn't expressly say it, they're entirely incompetent other than Tang Wei, who is also the least willing to join in, but does so to chase a crush. She succeeds in getting into Leung's social circle, and is ready to start an affair with him in order to facilitate the assassination, when things suddenly go wrong and she sees just how violent and amoral her friends can be.
When the film picks up again three years later in Shanghai, Tang Wei's friends have found here - and Tony Leung - and recruit her again to achieve the same goal. She goes along with them again, but only after seeing that her life is even more cast adrift than it had been - her family life has gone to hell, and she doesn't appear to have any new friends, and only escapes into movies.
Once the the resistance recruits Tang Wei back into the plot to kill Leung, she returns to a world of carefully tailored dresses and endless games of mah-jong, combined with stilted flirtations with Leung, a poised, careful gentleman of the collaborationist government.
Everything in the film at this point, like Tang Wei, is brilliantly conceived, but empty artifice. There's a plot, there are characters, and it's all gorgeous, but it not real. It's an act. And when Tony Leung and Tang Wei finally consummate their flirtation, both the characters and the film tear away the artifice in a shockingly intense, brutal sex scene.
As the affair continues, Tang's alienation from her life continues - her resistance contacts prove to be shockingly incomprensive of her desperation, even when she breaks down and screams it at them. A romantic advance from her former crush proves awkward and rebuffed for being far, far too late - she is completely attached to her affair with Leung.
Tony Leung, meanwhile, is absolutely superb (as always) as Mr. Yee, the chief of police of the collaborationist government. His performance gives the impression that he is a perfect gentleman, stuck in a terrible situation outside of his control. Early in the film, it even seems like he might be likable enough that the young resistance troupe are entirely in the wrong to want to assassinate him. Slowly his character is revealed to be a despicable sadist, albeit a recognizably human one.
It is when he shows Tang Wei a moment of human kindness that everything unravels. When it occurs, it seems clear that she hasn't had a moment like that since the very start of the film, and her reaction is both entirely human and horrifically stupid. She is revealed as totally compromised, and her character is shown as starkly naked as the sex scenes for which the film is famous.
Lust, Caution is not an easy film to watch - no good resistance movie should be - but it is a stunningly beautiful, deeply compelling one. Highly recommended.