In multicultural L.A. different households put their own spin on Turkey Day chaos: An African-American mom (Alfre Woodard) deals with her stubborn husband (Dennis Haysbert) nosy mother-in-law (Ann Weldon) and other irritants. Vietnamese immigrants (Joan Chen Francois Chau) worry that they've become alienated from their Americanized kids. A Latina matriarch (Mercedes Ruehl) faces the unwelcome return of her prodigal husband (Victor Rivers). Old-fashioned Jewish parents (Lainie Kazan Maury Chaykin) fret over a visit from their daughter (Kyra Sedgwick) and her irreverent lesbian lover (Julianna Margulies).
With substantial parts for more than a dozen actors in its diverse cast "What's Cooking?" has first-class character players spilling out of the cupboards. Ruehl criminally underused by Hollywood since her Oscar for 1991's "The Fisher King " is a stand-out delight in the juiciest of the four central mom roles. The Kazan-Chaykin-Sedgwick-Margulies team is particularly on target working the comedy in the Jewish quarter of the story.
Anglo-Indian director Gurinder Chadha ("Bhaji on the Beach") pulls off the challenging feat of weaving her mostly unrelated plotlines together without losing narrative tension - a factor that has shot down many a similarly ambitious ensemble drama. At first the modest family-movie scenarios seem to be heading in a hopelessly feel-good Hallmark Hall of Fame direction but the script (by Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges) starts to cook with some zinger plot twists in the second act. And the multistory format so often an arbitrary device in such films actually serves a thematic purpose in this case - though you'll have to wait for the cleverly set-up ending to find out what it is.
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.