There is a famous story about actor-director Erich von Stroheim that goes something like this: Cast as Rommel in Billy Wilder's 1943 Five Graves to Cairo, Stroheim was given a prop Leica camera as part of the character's wardrobe and proceeded to demand that the camera have film in it. When Wilder asked Stroheim why, he replied that an audience can always sense whether something is real or fake. It was that very fetishistic attention to detail and quest for “realism” that had, by then, already proved the bedevilment of so many of Stroheim's own film projects; he was brilliant, and yet, it was said, failed to understand certain basic principles of cinematic illusion.
The ghost of Stroheim looms large over Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, which screened Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival and which, at just shy of three hours, plays like the kind of rough assembly that directors sometimes screen for studio executives and trusted confidants when they're mid-way through the editing process. It is, I think, a work of extraordinary hubris—the kind of megalomaniacal enterprise that can spring forth from a director coming off of a major critical and commercial hit (in Lee's case, Brokeback Mountain) and allowed by producers to indulge his every whim.
Based on the short (I repeat, short) story by the late Chinese writer Eileen Chang, Lust, Caution takes a relatively simple, straightforward tale of love and espionage—think Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious transplanted to Japenese-occupied Shanghai—and stretches it out like worn elastic, not by adding material, but merely by distending each and every moment until the film resembles that old Loony Tunes cartoon where Bugs Bunny inhales ether fumes and everything around him starts moving very verryy ssllooowwwllllyyyy.
The alluring Tang Wei, a former model and television star making her film debut here, plays the impressionable student actress Wong Chia Chi. The reliably debonair Tony Leung is Mr. Yee, the high-ranking Japanese collaborator whom Wong finds herself recruited to seduce and lure into an assassination attempt, and for whom—wouldn't you just know it—she comes to harbor genuine feelings. Their dance of duplicity—which, for reasons the film never makes entirely compelling, takes years to reach its inevitable terminus—includes a handful of explicit sex scenes that have contributed to earning Lust, Caution an NC-17 rating, often a dreaded occurrence for movies seeking to attract a large commercial audience, but here, I suspect, one of the film's few viable selling points. The couplings of Chang and Leung aren't particularly sexy, but they may leave the geriatric art-house patrons whom the film is likeliest to attract feeling as if they've gotten away with something naughty.
As one who has praised many long and slow films in the past, and who wholeheartedly hopes to find time, here in Toronto, for Filipino director Lav Diaz's 540-minute Death in the Land of Encantos, I hope it's clear that I don't object to Lust, Caution solely on the basis of its running time. Rather, I object to its titanic self-importance, to the endless shots of characters exiting cars, entering buildings, climbing staircases, descending said staircases, and so on and so forth, all the while cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto's camera cranes lovingly about the immaculately recreated streets of 1940s Shanghai and scrutinizes every detail of costume designer Pan Lai's magnificent period costumes—all of which seem of greater interest to Lee than the human beings at the center of the film's story. This same kind of ornamental pageantry without purpose could be seen to a less damaging extent in Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, where it was at least held in check by tighter pacing and some dazzling airborne fight choreography. In Lust, Caution, there is but a single moment, late in the film, that bears mentioning: Fearing for his life, Leung's Mr. Yee sprints across a street and elegantly dives into his waiting, chauffeured car in one of those seamless meetings of narrative, performance, and style that deserves to be called cinematic poetry in motion. For a split second, Lust, Caution seems alive in a way it hasn't before, and then, just as soon, it returns to its hibernating state, like a great sleeping bear risen prematurely from slumber.
Yet, as I am writing this, word arrives from this year's just-concluded 75th anniversary edition of the Venice Film Festival that Lust, Caution has been awarded the festival's top prize—the Golden Lion— by a jury comprised exclusively of international directors, including Jane Campion, Paul Verhoeven and Zhang Yimou. As a veteran of more than a few festival juries myself, and having seen most of the other Venice competition films (including Todd Haynes' extraordinary Bob Dylan meta-bio-pic I'm Not There) either here in Toronto or during the selection process for this year's New York Film Festival, I can say with reasonable confidence that the decision smacks of compromise. But I won't belabor the point, since the Venice jury also saw fit to award Brian De Palma with the Silver Lion (or "best director" prize) for his brilliant and searing Iraq war docudrama Redacted (about which I will have more to say in a later post), proving that all really is fair in love, war, and film festivals.
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