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 eccentric writer/director John Waters made the subversive but colorful Hairspray in 1988—about a plus-sized girl and her dreams to dance as she breaks taboos in the early ‘60s—he probably thought it would be chalked up as another of his cult favorites. But here we are reviewing the latest Hairspray incarnation a movie version of the smash hit Broadway musical based on the 1988 offbeat classic. Funny how things work. The story is pretty much the same: The bubbly Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) a big girl with big hair and an even bigger heart wants to dance on Baltimore’s TV dance show The Corny Collins Show. Her mother Edna (Travolta) isn’t too keen on her daughter’s aspirations only because she doesn’t want to see Tracy hurt. But against all odds Tracy wows them on and off the TV screen squashing the reigning princess Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow) finding love with the local hunk Link (Zac Efron)—and fighting for racial equality on the hippest dance party on TV. Tracy is the cornerstone to making Hairspray zing—and every actress who has played her has nailed it in her own way. Ricki Lake gave us a good start as the original; Marissa Jaret Winokur won a Tony playing her on Broadway. Now we have brilliant newcomer Nikki Blonsky a former ice cream parlor employee who beat out several hundred girls to win the role. Her happy-go-lucky Tracy quite literally lights up the screen every time she appears and you find yourself grinning like a fool the whole time she is shimmying and shaking. Let’s hope she isn’t just a one-trick pony. The supporting cast is also very appealing. Michelle Pfeiffer who once again gets to use those lovely pipes of hers is perfectly unctuous as Velma Von Tussle Amber’s scheming mother and the TV station manager. Queen Latifah adds her certain joie de vivre as Motormouth Maybelle the host of Corny Collins’ “Negro Day.” Also good are Amanda Bynes as Tracy’s lollypop-eating best friend Penny Pingleton and Elijah Kelley as the groovin’ Seaweed Penny’s forbidden love. The one drawback is Travolta as the oversized Edna. He does a fair job as the caring mom who is reticent to let her daughter go out into the big bad world. We can even see the old Travolta we know and love come alive when Edna dances. But because the actor simply looks so very wrong in latex and lipstick it takes away from the performance. No one can really surpass the late Divine the original Hairspray’s Turnblad matriarch who did it au naturel. Directing a movie like Hairspray is basically a no-brainer and choosing Adam Shankman to helm is as good a choice as anyone else. He is certainly not known for his cinematic genius having directed fluff such as Cheaper by the Dozen 2 and The Pacifier but he understands the bubblegum appeal of a bee-bopping musical. Fueled by catchy tunes from the Broadway show plus a few new ones created just for the movie Shankman orchestrates the big song and dance numbers—of which there are plenty—in such a way to get you moving in your seat every time. He also frames his talent in their more personal character-driven songs with a steady hand. I just wonder what John Waters would have done with it. Maybe a little more dog poop? In any event forget about Chicago and Dreamgirls--Hairspray is the perfect popcorn movie musical that will get everyone dancing and singing the way Grease did a generation ago.