By Nick Schager
[Photos: Left, Tang Wei in “Lust, Caution”; below, Ang Lee on set, Focus Features, 2007]
Ang Lee’s films are fixated on the repression of desire, either by the self or by social constructs, so it’s fitting that the acclaimed Taiwanese filmmaker’s canon is defined by a cool, subdued style that stifles exhilaration. Unlike his more illustrious and rarefied Taiwanese contemporaries, boundary-pushing modern masters Tsai Ming-liang and Hou Hsiao-hsien, Lee’s sensibilities are about as mainstream as they come. Habitually measured, pensive and beautiful, Lee’s films subscribe to an approach that might best be described as graceful, innocuous stateliness, the director’s penchant for visual and sonic elegance likely responsible for his well-regarded critical reputation in the U.S., and yet matched by an atmospheric remove that frustrates any sense of passion. Lee is an able craftsman whose reserved techniques are tailor-made for Oscar season, in which tastefulness and thoughtfulness are, generally speaking, the preferred storytelling modes. So how to explain his latest, “Lust, Caution,” a fiery WWII espionage drama (recent recipient of the Golden Lion, aka Best Picture, at the Venice International Film Festival) that, despite a predictable fascination with facades and containment, is so sexually explicit that it garnered the doggedly middle-of-the-road director an NC-17 rating?
In terms of its raciness, the film which builds to an explosive crescendo of sadomasochistic release between Tony Leung’s Japanese collaborator Mr. Yee and stunning newcomer Tang Wei’s Chinese spy Mrs. Mak couldn’t seem more tonally removed from its creator. Born in Taiwan but filmicly educated at NYU, the diminutive, soft-spoken, 52-year-old Lee initially made a name for himself with 1992’s “The Wedding Banquet” and 1994’s “Eat Drink Man Woman,” both archetypal examples of early-’90s metro-arthouse cinema. Smart, sophisticated and formally unadventurous, they proved his adeptness at character-driven tales while laying out what would become familiar preoccupations with the family unit, the relationship between fathers and children, and the means by which whether it be Wai-tung and Simon in “Banquet,” Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” or Jack and Ennis in “Brokeback Mountain” cultural constraints and attitudes complicate attempts to attain security, happiness and love. Those two well-received efforts led to his first big-studio break, “Sense and Sensibility,” a kindred thematic spirit to his prior projects that also, despite being an English-language period piece based on Jane Austen’s Brit-lit classic, naturally meshed with Lee’s dignified, muted direction. The ideal marriage of artist and material, it unsurprisingly garnered seven Academy Award nods.
If Lee’s methods are restrained and conservative, his subsequent career choices have nonetheless exhibited a persistent dedication to risk-taking. Immersion in, and examination of, alien cultural microcosms is a prime characteristic of all Lee’s work, whether it be the Taiwanese family unit in “The Wedding Banquet,” upper-middle-class American suburbia in “The Ice Storm” (1997), or the South during the Civil War in “Ride with the Devil” (1999). Avoiding comfort zones by choosing unfamiliar milieus is one of his most admirable traits, though it’s not a tack that consistently pays off, since his unwavering directorial staidness doesn’t always complement the given story at hand. This is most readily apparent with regards to “Devil,” a handsome but wholly inert epic about brotherhood and nationhood drained of any ardor or rousing excitement by picture-postcard compositions and a mundane sweeping score. To be fair, the unwise gamble of casting Skeet Ulrich and Jewel in key roles contributes drastically to the overwhelming torpor. Yet there’s also a sense that, in this instance, Lee has simply strayed too far from his creative sweet spot, his temperamental mildness ill at ease with his story’s portrait of inner tumult and transformation.
The same might also be said about “Hulk,” which after 2000’s uniformly well-received “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” found the director valiantly attempting to craft a summertime comic-book extravaganza without losing his trademark focus on characters’ conflicts within and with their environments. Roundly slammed as a failure, “Hulk” is nonetheless one of Lee’s most underappreciated and finest works, in large part because in a manner 180-degrees contrary to that of his other unqualified triumph, “Sense and Sensibility” the contrast between subject matter and approach is pronounced to the point that it generates a funky, electric friction. There’s constant disorienting tension between Lee’s interest in Bruce Banner’s Jekyll-and-Hyde torment not to mention his concern with both Bruce’s testy relationship with his paterfamilias (Nick Nolte), and the repercussions wrought from society’s stipulation that man suppress his rage and the dictate to deliver CG-aided Hulk-SMASH! action set pieces. Like so much of his work, “Hulk” epitomizes the filmmaker’s frequent modus operandi of reworking standard genres into “Ang Lee films,” a process in which introspection is considered as important as stirring thrills and spectacle, whether it be for the better (“Hulk,” “Crouching Tiger”) or worse (“Devil”).
In many ways a more polished (and stirring) version of Paul Verhoeven’s recent “Black Book,” “Lust, Caution” doesn’t significantly renovate or subvert spy movie conventions or expectations. During its steamy, highly charged centerpieces, though, it does radically upend the director’s usual nippy detachment. In these violently erotic trysts, with sweaty ecstasy and tortured agony freely blending together, “Lust, Caution” seems like the anti-“Brokeback Mountain,” which tackled its homosexual love story with a delicate modesty that, while mirroring the tale’s repressive air, self-consciously avoided any of the matter-of-fact graphic bluntness of Annie Proulx short story source material. With its picturesque vistas of Western landscapes and its intense concentration on its protagonists’ emotional and social condition, “Brokeback” is typical Lee, a film so attuned to his strengths that it’s little surprise it nabbed him his first Academy Award for Best Director. “Lust, Caution,” conversely, finds him moving, however gingerly, away from the safe and traditional confines of his celebrated prior achievements. It isn’t a resounding success its protagonist’s motivations are ultimately too thinly developed, and its story a tad too drawn-out. Yet in its blistering heat, it also potentially portends a new future path for Lee, one in which the shelter of glossy aloofness is abandoned in favor of ever-more audacious, fervent modes of creative expression.