Ang Lee's follow up to his Oscar hopeful "Brokeback Mountain" has so many strikes against it you may be shocked to find it at your local cinema. A handsome period drama marred with the rare NC-17 rating, it has no Western stars, is in subtitles, handles its adult subject matter without heroes or a happy ending, and clocks in at just over two-and-a half-hours. These traits have earned it, as of this writing, a combined score on Metacritic.com of 60, just a point shy of "Transformers." The reason it wasn't dumped in Los Angeles and New York for a week before heading straight to DVD is probably the sex. There's lots of it, but if you give the film a chance, you'll find that "Lust, Caution" has much more to offer than its title suggests.
Set in Hong Kong and Shanghai amid the Japanese occupation of the East during World War II, the movie centers on Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei), a college student whose surprise debut performance in the lead of a patriotic play earns her the starring role in a plot to take out local political boss and collaborator Yee (Tony Leung). These students-turned-wannabe-resistors are amateurs, a fact they eventually admit before giving up their summer pursuit. But the real spies among them admire their moxie and years later re-enlist Wong to seduce Yee and ensnare him for assassination.
Lee's handling of the short story by Eileen Chang is admirable, even though the result is short on context and smoothes history a little. If it were your only source, you might think that the worst thing the Chinese endured under Japanese rule was rationing and an occasional smack. But the heart of the story lies with the unconventional leads, Wong and Yee. We are allowed to get to know them slowly and then incompletely. When the two end up in bed, the gymnastics don't seem scripted as much as torn from a few unpublished pages of National Geographic, mixing up emotions as well as limbs. Lee has made the sex erotic and the motivations human. It's hard to tell if one or both got under the skin of most critics, but "Lust, Caution" doesn't require either if you're thinking about seeing it, despite what you might have heard. (NC-17) 158 min. S