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Originally published October 5, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 5, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Movie review

"Lust, Caution" | An elegant and explicit tale of espionage

Eileen Chang's short story "Lust, Caution," about a young woman who enters a dangerous game of espionage in 1940s occupied Shanghai, is...

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars

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"Lust, Caution," with Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Tang Wei, Joan Chen, Wang Leehom. Directed by Ang Lee, from a screenplay by Wang Hui Ling and James Schamus, based on the short story by Eileen Chang. 159 minutes. Rated NC-17 (contains sexuality and nudity; no one under 18 admitted). In Mandarin Chinese, with English subtitles. Egyptian.

Eileen Chang's short story "Lust, Caution," about a young woman who enters a dangerous game of espionage in 1940s occupied Shanghai, is written with a quiet precision; its sentences sparkle like the diamonds on the fingers of the mahjong-playing ladies who open and close the story. Ang Lee's film adaptation, scripted by Wang Hui Ling and James Schamus, fills in what's not said in Chang's prose; it's an explicit, leisurely opening-out of an understated, tight story. Like the two opposing forces in the title (a theme in Lee's work: "Sense and Sensibility," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), the book and the film compliment and balance each other; each is, in its way, a rich experience.

Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei, in a luminous film debut) is a student actress at a Hong Kong university, happily dazzled by the unexpected rush of stage performance. Falling in with a group of student rebels, she soon puts her acting skills to use: Posing as an elegant but unhappy wife, she catches the cold eye of Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-wai, moody and dark), a government official and target of the students' assassination plot. Their eventual affair is both passionate and chilling; she's performing, without the safety of a curtain coming down.

Though "Lust, Caution" in prose is a story of sex and transformation, its bedroom scenes are discreetly shielded. When Wong learns that, in order to be convincing to Mr. Yee, she must lose her virginity to one of the student rebels, Chang conveys the event with a quiet "And so the show went on." Lee, instead, shows us the moment — the grimness of her face, the mechanical quality of this strange "rehearsal" — revealing to us what she is letting slip away. The movie's sex scenes between Wong and Mr. Yee are explicit, deliberate and at times brutal, beginning with a rape and evolving into long passages of complex intertwining. He at times looks barely present; she, her lipstick turned blurry, looks like she's trying not to be. "He worms his way into my heart," she bitterly tells her collaborators.

Like "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," another elegant adaptation opening this week, "Lust, Caution" has a stately pace (it's nearly 2 hours and 40 minutes) that sometimes works against it. You become all too aware of the passing of time, even as you're seduced by the elegance of Lee's images and sounds: the precision of Wong's makeup in her disguise, giving sharp focus to a young face not quite formed; the mahjong tiles delicately clicking on the table, like the rapid hooves of tiny horses carrying unspoken secrets. The game goes on, as the story sadly fades away; a tragedy, without a final bow.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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