Lust, Caution

Well, the title certainly fits. Not since Kirsten Dunst pranced through the schizo teen flick Crazy/Beautiful has there been an odder, more appropriate amalgam of words used in a movie advertisement, and if there's any justice in Hollywood, the trend will finally catch on. No longer will we have to muddle though confusing catchphrases and monosyllabic attempts at symbolism: The Transformers sequel could be called Testosterone, Mania; Jack Nicholson could star in something called Horny, Arrogant; and George Lucas could continue the Star Wars series as Marketing, Synergy.

Of course, the English name of Ang Lee's latest film is as true a translation as possible from Eileen Chang's original Chinese-language novella, and the phrase — as well as the film's defiantly explicit sex scenes, intentionally awkward blasts of violence and oppressive length — underlines the whole "to hell with what Americans think of it" feel of the entire project. Having won his second Oscar with the gay-cowpoke romance Brokeback Mountain, Lee seems determined to devote his energies to crafting lush, majestic, emotionally complex movies for grown-ups, just like the ones Bernardo Bertolucci and Philip Kaufman used to make. Now if he could just learn to cut, he might be onto something.

Lee has always specialized in intimate studies of characters forced to live in coded, cloistered worlds, whether due to class, race or sexuality, and Lust, Caution is no exception. But here he ups the ante: By focusing on a very Western archetype — the femme fatale — he adds a layer of subtext to what is already a tale of conflicted East-West identity in WWII-era China. This is no ordinary "dragon lady": As the duplicitous Wong Chia Chi, the stunningly self-possessed newcomer Wei Tang has soft, babyish features and a teenage innocence that evaporates unexpectedly whenever she's within striking distance of her prey, the married government man Mr. Yee (played by Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung).

The opening moments tell us everything and nothing about these two. As sinister black cars skulk down alleyways and high-collared, trench-coated men make their way through the streets of Japanese-occupied Shanghai, a quartet of women play the most furiously suggestive game of mah-jongg ever committed to celluloid. The flurry of camera movement recalls Scorsese; meanwhile, the costuming and settings — not to mention the theater playing Suspicion — deliberately evoke Hitchcock. And the sex scenes, when they finally arrive, are downright pyrotechnic: Leung and Tang bounce each other off walls, contort themselves into human pretzels and otherwise engage in the kind of pube-to-pube action for which the NC-17 rating was created. This isn't the gauzy, window-dressing humping you see on Cinemax in the middle of the night: With each sweaty copulation, Lee gets us closer to the characters. These are two people who trust no one, and their lovemaking moves from a place of sado-masochistic, sub-dom teasing to a level of genuine intimacy that makes their inevitable fates all the more crushing.

So far, so good. But Lee indulges in a little directorial hubris when he doubles back in time for a lengthy flashback detailing Wong Chia Chi's induction into "the cause" in college, which — wouldn't you know it — was through an idealistic, leftist theater troupe. It could be argued that these mostly lugubrious scenes heighten the tension and passion that follows them, but, as even a Marxist radical will tell you, the only thing more insufferable than a bunch of drama geeks is a bunch of drama geeks-turned-resistance fighters. Anytime a director uses mainstream success as a springboard for something bigger and more daring — as opposed to, say, Hulk — you can chalk one up for all of us movie buffs out there in the audience. Now if only Lee's newfound aesthetic gonads could be balanced with a sense of when to say "when" in the editing room, he might have a true masterpiece on his hands.

Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.

Showing at the Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.

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