Taiwanese director Ang Lee is nothing if not eclectic in his output. Still best known for 2000’s beautifully-shot epic martial arts flick Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – which in turn helped bring us the sumptuous likes of Zhang Yimou’s decidedly similar Hero and House of Flying Daggers – it is easy to forget just how odd a bunch of movies he’s been associated with.
After all, his back catalogue includes everything from New York-set immigration comedy The Wedding Banquet to Taiwan-set romance Eat Drink Man Woman to lush Kate Winslet-starring Austen adaptation Sense and Sensibility, through philosophical superhero flick Hulk, suburban character study The Ice Storm, American Civil War romance Ride With The Devil, and his most recent, the film indelibly dubbed “that gay cowboy flick”, Brokeback Mountain.
Other than the fact that all his films share a near-perfect visual sense, always entirely appropriate to the overall feel, and that emotions and relationships always seem to take precedence over the storyline, in subject matter and setting – as well as in protagonists – they could hardly be more different. He’s jumped from 19th Century English high society to 1960s Midwest America, Qing dynasty in China to 1970s suburbia, and with every film he’s produced something both interesting and worthy of the audience’s affection. Yes, Hulk may not have been quite what everyone was expecting, being light on action and heavy on overdrawn attempts to explain the psychology of a man who turns into a big green smashing machine, but even that movie – arguably his least successful – has its fans, and has a sequel due next year.
So although a new Ang Lee film is always cause for celebration, his fans never know quite what to expect. Having won the Golden Lion for best film at the Venice Film Festival (with Brokeback Mountain and Babel; cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto also received a gong), we know that Lust, Caution is going to be visually stunning. But we knew that just from Ang Lee’s involvement. From the title, it might seem that romance is the order of the day – but that’s still not much help, as romance always plays a part in Ang Lee movies. The real question is what’s the setting? What’s the background? For it is always the near unspoken tensions underlying the action that give Ang Lee’s movies their deep appeal just as much as the visuals.
Here, the action all takes place to one of the most violent and horrendous backdrops of any Ang Lee film to date. Yes, he may have done a movie set during the American Civil War, but that’s nothing compared to the Japanese occupation of China during the Second World War, which underlies all the action here. And – as in Hulk, Brokeback Mountain and, to an extent, Crouching Tiger – it is the double life of the main protagonist that drives the story, as a woman is drawn into an elaborate plot to dispose of a key collaborator with the Japanese occupiers.
Perhaps most surprising is how well newcomer Wei Tang manages to hold her own opposite Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung – familiar to Western audiences from the likes of Hero, Infernal Affairs, In the Mood For Love and Hard Boiled. Because it’s easy to forget, amidst the sheer beauty of his films, that Lee is also an expert at eliciting excellent performances from his actors, no matter what language he’s working in. And, as with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the fact that his latest offering is not in English, should not be considered remotely off-putting by anyone keen for expertly-crafted cinema. After the excesses of the Christmas period, this somehow gloriously tranquil wartime espionage romance proves yet again that Ang Lee is one of the finest yet most unpredictable directors currently working. His next film? A romantic comedy.