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.
November 15, 2002 4:05am EST
Sascha Petrosevitch (Steven Seagal) is an undercover FBI agent posing as an international car thief. When Sascha and his partner in crime Nick Frazier (Ja Rule) get busted by the Feds Sascha agrees to serve time at the newly refurbished Alcatraz in order to keep his cover. The prison happens to house a criminal by the name of Lester (Bruce Weitz) who robbed an armored vehicle of some $200 million worth of gold that has never been recovered. A group of mercenaries calling themselves "the 49ers" decide it would be a good idea to break into the prison and somehow force Lester to divulge the booty's whereabouts. When their plan backfires they begin taking hostages--including Justice June McPherson (Linda Thorson). To save the day Sascha must rally the inmates against the commando force. Half Past Dead is a stock actioner complete with lame story flashy stunts and lots of folks pointing guns at one another. It is also a typical Seagal pic so if you have ever watched any--including the Under Siege movies--you've seen this one too.
Once again Seagal (Exit Wounds) is the archetypal defender but instead of portraying a brooding silent hero he simply comes across as bored. Or maybe this is just Seagal's rendition of what happens to a man after he flatlines for 22 minutes. Seagal's partner in crime Nick is played by rapper-turned-actor Ja Rule (The Fast and the Furious). The two actors barely have any chemistry and the "brotherly" relationship they talk about incessantly never comes through on screen. Morris Chestnut (Like Mike) plays Donny aka 49er One the leader of the mercenaries. It was a refreshing change to see Chestnut--who has played nice-guy roles in a throng of romantic comedies such as The Brothers Two Can Play That Game and The Best Man--portraying a sociopath with absolutely no redeeming qualities. He does it charmingly well. As Chestnut's fellow commando 49er Six Nia Peeples manages to create a character that despite her tiny stature is convincingly intimidating. Tony Plana is exceptional as the bad-ass prison warden El Fuego; it's too bad his character has such a small role in the film.
With this movie actor/screenwriter Don Michael Paul who appeared in a bevy of little-known films in the late '80s and early 90's makes his directorial debut. It's obvious that Paul put more focus and energy into the film's visuals than into the story. Half Past Dead's new Alcatraz setting is ultra slick complete with state-of-the-art execution chambers yet still retains the dark and gritty feel that a prison should. But while Paul has chosen all the "right" ingredients to build an action flick he hasn't put enough thought into the story's logistics. In one scene for example Seagal parachutes out of a helicopter that's only about 200 feet above sea level. It's hard to buy into a stunt that is so far from plausible. Furthermore the proliferation of buddy action movies has simply grown tiresome. Like its many predecessors Half Past Dead tries to draw laughs and create chemistry by pairing two opposite characters and while that worked for Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in Rush Hour it fails miserably between Seagal and Ja Rule. Viewers will only cringe when Nick tries to teach Sascha the Ebonics version of all right ("aight").