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Why am I leaping from the stage, which I adore, to the silver screen this week?  It's because of the best film I've seen in ages: Ang Lee's Lust, Caution

It's about the Japanese occupation of China during WWII.  

The story is mostly set in Hong Kong in 1938 and in Shanghai in 1942, when it was occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army and ruled by the puppet government led by Wang Jingwei. It depicts a group of Chinese university students from the Lingnan University who plot to assassinate a high-ranking special agent and recruiter of the puppet government using an attractive young woman to lure him into a trap.

It got an NC-17 rating here in the U.S. and apparently a limited screening as well.

That's a shame.  It should have had an R rating (would have had, in the 1970s, but the bigots and trolls have been in charge since then) and should have had a national release.

The film begins in Shanghai in 1942.  A young woman is playing Mah-Jongg with some friends.  She's the wife of an importer -- so she claims.  Later, we will come to learn that she's an amateur agent working to kill a Chinese collaborator of the Japanese who rule the city.

Flashback to Hong Kong, 1938 -- as a freshman in college, she falls in with a theatrical group, and plays the leading role in a play about the resistance to the Japanese occupation.  The actors, though, want to be a cell to take out a certain Chinese man who has been working with the Japanese, and is extremely cautious about who he lets get close to him.

She does.  He rapes her...still she stays in character, still she works to bring him down.  Until the end, when she tells him to flee, thereby saving his life.

Her end is less than happy, as you might guess.

But it's an incredible edge-of-your-seat film for most of its 2 1/2 hours, with extremely nuanced acting.  Ang Lee's direction proves him to be the greatest auteur of our time: this is both claustrophobic and expansive.

It's too bad Lust, Caution didn't get a wider release b/c it's so spectacular.  IMO, it's up there with Casablanca in terms of terrific.  Better than Casablanca actually, b/c it's dry-eyed and not nostalgic.  It certainly doesn't glamorize in the way Casablanca does.

Tang Wei plays the young woman, Wong Chia-chi, who lures the collaborator then finally warns him away from his would-be executioners.  She gives a bravura performance, IMO, not at all chewing up the scenery but quietly commanding all your eyeballs and attention to every last detail of her movement.  In the clip below, of Ang Lee talking about the film, he says he deliberately picked an unknown actress to play Wong Chia-chi, and oh boy, was this terrific casting.

Tony Leung Chiu-Wai plays Mr. Lee, the collaborator they're all out to murder.  Again, nuance: he's obviously a bastard, but Tony brings a certain vulnerability to the role, so while you may loathe him, you can't entirely hate him.

I gave the film five stars at Netflix, and highly recommend it.

If you have a Netflix account, you can watch the whole thing here:

Apparently you can also pay to watch it on YT:

Ang Lee talks about the making of the film:

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