There’s a superb and important early scene in Ang Lee’s absorbing spy romance, set on a stylised (studio-shot) Hong Kong tram in 1939, as a young troupe of Chinese actors board, flushed with the rousing success of that night’s patriotic play. (The Japanese have already occupied their homeland, British-run Hong Kong is soon to fall.) The exhilarated lead character Wong Chia Chi (a remarkable, film-dominating debut performance by newcomer Wei Tang) thrusts her head out the window to taste the rain, as if to make physical and personal the night’s small triumph. You see in that moment how the innocent young actress may be persuaded, in patriotic duty, to adopt an alias, spy on and seduce, in order to kill Tony Leung’s collaborationist chief of police.
You could call Lee’s Chinese-language version of Eileen Chang’s novella a revisionist wartime thriller. Its sub-Brechtian moments are muted, but it is more than happy to pay self-conscious attention to the period setting, design and clothes to highlight, in echo of David Hare’s ‘Plenty’, the seductive role of dress as disguise and mask. Like Hare (with his OAS volunteer, Kate Nelligan), Lee is interested in applying an emotional and psychological realism to his heroine’s incredible bravery. It seems, in wartime, some are able to assume grave responsibilties, but – as Lee’s film quietly and provocatively suggests – the actions of those that do make mockery of conventional, sex-based, notions of what constitutes courage, honour, love or even patriotism itself. In this sense, the real battlefield, the genuine theatre of truth, in ‘Lust, Caution’ is the bed – the sex – in the arranged flat three years later in Shanghai, something of a last tango wherein Leung’s previously almost obsequiously mannered ‘traitor’ shows his true colours, and Miss Wong, under her alias Mrs Mak, is transformed by the ever-present knowledge that discovery is death. It’s not a companionable film – Lee’s directorial discipline, objectivity and lack of expressionist touch in the use of either Rodrigo Prieto’s camerawork or Alexandre Desplat’s score can push the viewer close to outsider-dom or voyeurism – but its dark romanticism lingers in the mind.