Ang Lee's Lust, Caution feels like Casablanca crossed with a Japanese pink film. In acknowledgment of modern tastes, there is lots of NC-17 sex. But at the other extreme, there also are oodles of 1940s-era decorum and emotional repression. The sensibility feels distinctly Asian and fatalistic, though the themes of frustrated love and female-centered tragedy also summon up old-school Western melodrama.
Moving from painfully repressed gay cowboys in Brokeback Mountain to painfully repressed Chinese in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, Lee proves his mettle where the romantic melodrama is concerned. If there is a genre, you can be assured Lee will tackle it.
Lust giving way to love is delivered through the eyes of a delicate, enchanting Chinese actress turned spy, Wong Jiazhi (Tang Wei). Alone first in war-torn Hong Kong and then Shanghai, Wong finds her calling amid a group of idealistic young actors who perform political theater on stage.
Sex will later prove an awakening of sorts for Wong. But it's the theater that gives her the chance to express emotions less accessible in ordinary life. That notion of performance as liberation remains one of the best things about Lust, Caution.
Anxious to put their political beliefs into action, Wong's fellow actors convince her to infiltrate the inner circle of Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), a highly placed Chinese official collaborating with the Japanese in Shanghai. Wong finds another opportunity to express her feelings on a very different stage of sorts, when she falls in love with Mr. Yee. Wong is intensely sympathetic because she is so thoroughly used on both sides. It is, after all, Wong's friends and fellow actors who thrust her into the dangerous role of a spy. And her "enemies" are the women and lover who invite Wong into their midst.
Despite an often oblique script, Wong is a fascinating and beautiful gem that Lee seems happy to set in his jeweler's ornate narrative. Though the film's point of view is from the love-starved Wong, she retains a cipherlike quality that never reveals the depths of her personality.
After his merging of the Western and a gay love story in Brokeback Mountain, Lee's biggest disappointment in Lust, Caution may be a conventionality where sex and gender are concerned (especially when seen next to the progressive values and frank sex of the recent Lady Chatterley) in the by-now-notorious sex scenes between Wong and Mr. Yee.
Despite Lee's consistently feminine point of view, it's a pity that Wong's sexual awakening comes in a Belle de Jour brutal near-rape. According to the conventions of bodice-rippers, Wong is left sprawled on the bed, but possessing that secret smile of a masochistically satisfied woman. Her own father has abandoned Wong for a new life in England, and Lee offers the possibility that even Yee's tough love is better than no love at all.
But despite some raw sex (less kinky than the film's extraordinarily erotic repression), Lust, Caution's conventional take on romance may be most visible in the glittering pink diamond that seals Wong's unbreakable devotion to Yee. Expensive jewelry is the way to a woman's heart in this often bauble-obsessed yarn.
Across genre, repression remains a Lee fixation. From the chilly environs of Connecticut in The Ice Storm to those iconic, wounded gay cowboys, many of Lee's films exhibit a fatalistic disappointment with life's wounding and tragic nature. It is a pity within a film laden with so much detail and such complex characters that its most important element remains repressed as well: the two lovers Yee and Wong, whose true motives and desires remain so often beyond our understanding.
One of Lust, Caution's merits is its vivid, luxurious sense of place. Director James Gray's We Own the Night is the polar opposite: fumbled and imprecise in its treatment of both the music, art and look of 1988 New York (incongruously wallpapered with '70s Blondie tunes) and the psychological muck of a family. Reuniting his The Yards stars Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg, Gray has made little progress from that convention-laden 2000 crime drama.
Wahlberg straps on his square hair from The Departed again as the decent but luckless cop brother to bad seed Bobby (Phoenix). Introduced in the film's promisingly dynamic opening giving the business to a consistently immobile Amada (Eva Mendes), Bobby is a coked-up El Caribe nightclub manager and consort with bad men. With the logic of all predictable and inept scripts, Bobby is pushed toward the side of right and good when he helps his cop brother and dad (Robert Duvall) take down a Russian drug lord.
Like the recent Hispanic gangsta picture Illegal Tender, We Own the Night gives the distinct impression of being written and directed by a meta-badass director stupidly fascinated by the glamour of gunplay and a criminal milieu cribbed from Scorsese. Genre, as "The Sopranos" so brilliantly illustrated, can be an opportunity for a director to try new things within certain constraints.
But it can also be a trap. At times laughable in its deficiencies, We Own the Night is more often just depressing for its failure to recognize that genre done without a soul or vision is just going through the motions.