Set in WWII-era China, the film follows wide-eyed drama student Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) as she is recruited by a group of young radicals in their plot to assassinate Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), an interrogator in the collaborationist government. In a plot point familiar from everything from Notorious to last year's Black Book, Chia Chi's mission is to first befriend Yee's wife (Joan Chen), then seduce the hard-to-reach Mr. Yee. The two leads are both excellent; Leung is a model of restraint, subtly suggesting Mr. Yee's capacity for violence beneath his mannered exterior, and first-time film actress Wei is a revalation in a role that sees Chia Chi transform from an idealist who cries at the movies to a woman who sacrifices her dignity and identity to a cause she understands less and less. In the film's first half, Lee creates a palpable tension between the two that swerves between sexual attraction and the threat of something darker - by the time the film reaches its high point, a bloody and protracted assassination, Lust, Caution had me on the edge of my seat with its uneasy balance of sex and death.
And then the film reaches its much-publicized sex scenes, which Lee has described as the heart of the film. While I admire Lee for accepting the much-dreaded NC-17 reading and all for serious explorations of sex in cinema, it's here that Lust, Caution let me down. The couplings between Leung and Wei are certainly comprehensive, but they don't really tell us anything about the characters we couldn't have already guessed. Neither erotic nor suspenseful, the scenes rely on a tired collection of S&M tropes that seemed too familiar in Basic Instinct fifteen years ago (redeemed in that film by Paul Verhoeven's knowing trash aesthetic). Instead of revealing the characters' inner lives, Lee only manages to make the nature of their connection murkier - the scenes go on and say so little that they frankly start to feel gratuitous. And in a film that has built to such a confrontation for nearly two hours, the effect is a real cold shower.
I held out hope that Lee was going somewhere with this - that he had yet to reveal the detail that would bring his characters and story into focus. Unfortunately, all Lust, Caution arrives at is a final ten minutes as lazy and haphazardly executed as a run-of-the-mill Hollywood take on this kind of material (including a shot of a man diving into a car that provoked unintentional laughter). Worse, they hinge on a character making a decision that, with everything we've learned about the character, I couldn't believe at all. With final moments that end with the wrong character and reveal a misanthropic side to everything we've seen, Lust, Caution fails to deliver on its own promise. It's not a bad movie - its first half is spellbinding - and yet what works about it works so well that I expected a lot more than Lee ultimately delivers. And while Lee tries to arrive at another all-encompassing signifier, a diamond ring simply doesn't have the same impact as Jack Twist's jacket.