Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Comma Chameleon

Lust, Caution: Cineworld, Broad Street, Birmingham, Saturday January 12 2008, 4.40pm.

Just as Paul Schrader's tricksy political thriller The Walker (2007, out as of last week on DVD) begins with a genteel game of cards, Ang Lee's erotically-charged spy story Lust, Caution has a lengthy opening scene featuring a game of Mahjong, an inscrutable pastime which seems to be a kind of combination of Yahtzee and Dungeons and Dragons played with small slabs that resemble white chocolate Bendick's Mingles.

Set in Japanese-occupied Shangai during World War Two, nothing is quite what it seems underneath the civilised veneer of small-talk and drawing-room games. The importer's wife introduced to the gentleman of the house Mr Yee (played by Tony Leung) is a poor player of Mahjong for the reason she's too busy concentrating on keeping up her cover to study the nuances of the game, as the film's flashback structure reveals her to be a young actress hired to seduce the high-ranking collaborator and lead him towards his assassination.

Mr Yee, however, is an understandably cautious man, and there's plenty of human chess moves, not to mention betrayal and bloodshed, before the film's well-publicised explicit sex scenes explode upon the screen. The result is a slow-burning pot-boiler with plenty to reward the patient viewer, not least the two lead performances. Relative unknown Tang Wei is bewitching both as the radical student and troubled spy lost in lust with her smouldering prey, while Tony Leung impressively conveys the brooding passion beneath his character's buttoned-up exterior with a quiet, dignified subtlety that helps raise the material above mere melodrama.

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