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A would-be Mata Hari gets more than she bargains for in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon director Ang Lee's erotic espionage thriller
Be it the prim Jane Austen heroines of Sense And Sensibility, the taciturn cowboys of Brokeback Mountain or the tongue-tied adolescents of The Ice Storm, filmmaker Ang Lee's specialty has been characters too constricted by decorum and social convention to express themselves either romantically and sexually. That trend ends in Lust, Caution, a WWII saga about two people whose entire relationship is defined by their lustful desire, no-holds-barred intercourse and sadomasochistic leanings.
It is these sequences that have earned Lee's film a restrictive NC-17 rating in the US, generally regarded as the kiss of box-office death. Those expecting a raunchy, X-rated bonkathon, however, will be either surprised or disappointed that these admittedly explicit sex scenes are only one element in this languorous adaptation of a story by celebrated Chinese author Eileen Chang.
Indeed, you have to wait around an hour-and-a-half before the simmering attraction between young resistance fighter Wong Chia Chi (Wei) and Japanese collaborator Mr Yee (Leung Chiu-Wai) finally comes to the boil.
Up to that point Lust, Caution's scriptwriters James Schamus and Wang Hui-Ling have other fish to fry: a nostalgic recreation of 1930s Hong Kong where Wei's earnest student first discovers her passion for acting by performing in patriotic agitprop; her first fumbling inroads into espionage which see her assume a false identity and gamely sacrifice her virginity for the cause (wooing Mr Yee in order to engineer his assassination); and the prolonged murder of a blackmailing traitor by her fellow conspirators that recalls the infamous kitchen scene from Hitchcock's Torn Curtain.
All the above, though, is merely preamble to the main event - the point where Wong Chia Chi's seduction of Mr Yee finally gets serious. It's only here that Lee's film starts to generate real heat and the conflicting impulses driving his heroine come into focus.
Even here, though, there's a chilly remoteness to the saucy action that stops the viewer becoming emotionally involved - so much so that, by the time the Taiwanese director springs his final dramatic surprise, we're simply too distanced to care. We're left with the feeling that whatever message the film hoped to convey has been buried beneath too much period finery and distracting plot detail.
Isolated moments of high drama and some startlingly intimate sex scenes sadly fail to galvanise a turgid and overlong whole.
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