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.
When he's not playing basketball feeding his fish working in the mall food court or hanging out with nerdy hyper-manic Virgil (Jason Tobin) 16-year-old Ben (Parry Shen) is applying to Ivy League universities studying for exams and memorizing vocabulary words for the academic decathlon. He has a crush on his bio lab partner the pretty cheerleader Stephanie (Karin Anna Cheung) and finds himself hanging out with her with the blessing of her rich arrogant boyfriend Steve (John Cho) with whom he strikes up an uneasy friendship--until Ben learns Steve's cheating on Stephanie. Ben is busy but bored. Life gets way more interesting when popular slick Daric (Roger Fan) who hangs out with Virgil's thug cousin Han (Sung Kang) talks Ben and tag-along Virgil into selling cheat sheets. This evolves into selling drugs stealing and other nefarious activities. In short order this fearsome foursome is known around school for toting guns starting fights drinking heavily and dealing the best cocaine around. They do it because they can: Their intelligence makes them feel superior and the stereotypes associated with their race (they're "the smart good kids") enable them to get away with it until things spin out of control; Ben wakes up with nosebleeds from the drugs he did to stay up all night studying and his beloved fish die of neglect.
Shen as Ben doesn't have as much personality as his three friends but that's appropriate. Wide-eyed he absorbs what they do like a sponge stiff and unbending at first then happily going along with the slyly manipulative Daric after he realizes there are no prices to pay only rewards to gain for their nihilistic actions. All the teens down to the pertly innocent cheerleader and her boyfriend are not evil so much as simply morally bankrupt. You don't really like any of them but you somehow understand why they do what they do. All actors are virtual unknowns but their performances are impressive.
Although the movie defiantly knocks the meek studious Asian stereotype upside down and around the corner their race ends up being almost beside the point. They could be the latchkey Everykids found in any upper-middle-class American community nowadays disaffected and bored with life in an increasingly short-attention-span pressure-cooker society. Director Justin Lin "gets" the essence of the kids and deftly handles their story with sharp editing edgy camerawork darkly funny script (some lines are priceless) and an excellent punk-pop soundtrack (fittingly Better Luck is the first theatrical acquisition for MTV Films). This film does run a little on the long side and makes one wonder if Lin had a hard time figuring out where and how to end it (reportedly the film's shocking ending was actually toned down from what was originally intended).