The story of Lust Caution begins in the midst of WWII in Asia as the Japanese have a stranglehold on key areas of China including Shanghai and Hong Kong. The iron-fisted Chinese who are collaborating with the invaders are led by Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) a cruel and ruthless man who delights in the torture and murder of his fellow countrymen who are fighting against the Japanese occupation. When a patriotic band of college students (made up of four men and two women all part of the drama school) decide to strike a blow for Chinese freedom by assassinating Mr. Yee it falls to Wang (the mesmerizingly beautiful Wei Tang) to infiltrate his home and heart to pave the way for the killing. But as her compatriots--including handsome Kuang played by American-born Chinese rock star Lee-Hom Wang who loves her from afar--bid their time waiting for the moment to strike Mr. Yee and Wang enter into a torrid affair that begins to consume them both. Think of the Hitchcock classic Suspicion shift from Europe to Asia add in intensely explicit sex scenes and a completely unexpected ending and you have Lust Caution--a film that is soon to be considered a classic as well. Veteran actors Tony Leung and Joan Chen lead a fine cast of actors who together create this completely believable glimpse into Chinese culture during the dark days of Japanese occupation. Both give intense performances--he as the powerful emotionless Mr. Yee and she as his vapid shopping and Mah Jong-obsessed wife. But the most amazing performance is that of newcomer Wei Tang the Miss Universe finalist who makes her film debut in Lust Caution. Her fantastic face slim body and almost ethereal presence seem to blot out everyone else when she is on the screen; you can’t help but look at only her. Her transformation in the four-year span of the story is masterful. As she goes from a naïve young student to a mature woman whose physical obsession with a man she despises begins to overwhelm her. The ingénue proves that she is much more than just a pretty face. In fact she deserves an Academy Award nomination for her often subtle always fearless performance that is at the heart of the film. Ang Lee has a unique cinematic ability to begin a story very specific to a time a place and a culture and end with a universal tale that resonates across all societies and peoples. He did it beautifully with Sense and Sensibility Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon as well as Brokeback Mountain and he’s done it again masterfully with Lust Caution. This newest film is an intense look at how war often causes an individual to make the ultimate sacrifice for the common good yet it also explores another underlying theme: the idea that there is a never-ending battle between the sexes for emotional dominance within a sexual relationship. Ang Lee’s deft hand is evident in every frame including the incredibly explicit (and often violent) sex scenes that have given the film its NC-17 rating. But this is not pornography; every scene is necessary to the story showing us that using sex as a means to an end (no matter how noble that end) is a very dangerous game to play especially during wartime. Look for Ang Lee’s name to come up on the Academy’s list again this year as awards season kicks into high gear. He deserves every honor for this emotionally disturbing masterpiece.
The Painted Veil is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel about British colonialism in China. The film's cohesion is largely helped by a user-friendly script from Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) who tackles amorphous movie-unfriendly themes like emotional longing. We meet Walter Fane (Edward Norton) a lovesick middle-class bacteriologist who spots Kitty (Naomi Watts) an upper-class socialite approaching the upper limits of marrying age at a party. Walter not smooth with women woos Kitty with his intensity and persuades her to join him in cholera-stricken China. With a wandering eye Kitty is soon caught in a lusty affair with a local British diplomat Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber) but Walter eventually forgives her but imprisons her in the desolate green south China countryside. The film's crucial problem is its setting of a Western-centric love story on top of a palette of Chinese human death and disease albeit framed beautifully and exotically. Norton and Watts take producers' credits as well. The actor pushed for years to get The Painted Veil made painstakingly and authentically co-produced with the China Film Board. These facts hint at the commitment and intelligence Oscar nominees Norton and Watts bring. Norton always impresses and surprises. Each role in his resume is tasty in its own way a wholly new creation and never derivative. In Norton's previous film The Illusionist he was a similarly powerful opaque character from a far away time and place. Although sometimes seeming she’s on autopilot Watts is also brilliantly underrated as the conflicted Kitty who doesn't love the man she married even though he loves her as much as she loves herself. Her tricky darting eyes mixed with uneasy body language tells us we don't know what to expect other than that she'll probably sabotage herself. Toby Jones--who played Truman Capote to critics' acclaim in Infamous--does a provocative turn as the mysterious opium-smoking neighbor. The Painted Veil falls short of greatness when the second half crumbles into laziness right when the emotional impact should be the strongest. Director John Curran is relatively untested ( We Don't Live Here Anymore) especially with difficult material and he stumbles a bit in this ambitious drama. Veil's storytelling meanders with a few unnecessary scenes. Lame mini-montages lapse into TV movie territory. Attention to detail however (minus Norton's highlighted hair) is superb. Four exquisite wisely picked Chinese locations were used in concert with local actors and crew to produce an internationally representative work of Chinese/American art. Interior sets are post-WWI prudish and upper-class underlying the movie's "painted " hidden ideas. Old-world rickshaws and water systems are true to the time. The haunting soundtrack feels postmodern and contemporary. But overall like last year's disappointing Memoirs of a Geisha the mish-mash of American and Asian story themes doesn't quite work.
Johnny Doyle (the enviably named Mars Callahan who also wrote and directed) is a pool-playing wunderkind who as his shady mentor Joe (Chazz Palminteri) puts it makes an art out of the hustle not just by conning his victims but making them like it. Johnny's getting tired of the sharking game and his law-student girlfriend Tara (Alison Eastwood) is putting the press on him to get legit--or get out. When he finds out double-crossing Joe screwed him out of a chance to join the professionals 15 years ago so they could remain hustling partners Johnny dumps Joe in a violent confrontation and tries (unsuccessfully as it turns out) to go straight despite his love of the game the respect he gets from his younger brother and his friends and of course the astounding amount of money he can win. Plus Tara's millionaire uncle Mike (Christopher Walken) can run the table pretty well himself and he's taken a liking to rebel Johnny. Meanwhile Joe vowing to settle the score has taken on top-ranked pro Brad (Rick Schroder) as his new protégé to help him do just that.
Callahan looks a lot like Walken by default or by design--his hair expressions mannerisms could make him Walken's son--but the similarity ends there. Callahan's no weighty actor but his easy delivery and quippy one-liners balance the heft brought in by Walken (who steals the entire shebang with a few choice scenes) and Palminteri (who with his malevolent scowl and loathsome behavior chews up and spits out the scenery as if tasting a spoiled bar burger). Wan and vapid token chick Eastwood has zero presence on-screen and even less chemistry with Callahan. The scenes involving Johnny's young wannabe-grifter brother Danny (Michael Rosenbaum) and his pals are a hoot but many are unnecessary. Schroder has maybe two lines and gives a good butt-whuppin' but he mostly just does a lot of lip mashing to show his frustration satisfaction confusion…
How newbie director Callahan convinced this exceptional group (in addition to Palminteri and Walken Rod Steiger appears in his final role as an aged streetwise poolhall owner with an old saw for every unfortunate situation) to sign on is anyone's guess--this ain't no Paul Newman pool movie and everyone knows it. Thankfully Callahan's cast is skilled enough to rise above its corny diatribes and some stiff dialogue and the script does have some very funny lines and scenes that give the cast something to work with. However at a breezy 90-some minutes the movie could done away with a few of the scenes in favor of more character development and back story. Way too much time is wasted on a long party scene in which one of Johnny's young buddies tries to get laid more still on his brother's band's performance at some club and even more on the parts with Tara's bitchy friend--yet we never really find out what drives Joe to be such a jerk or why Johnny is such a loser other than a few lines about his neglectful parents.