The NC-17 thing isn't that big of a deal.
Ang Lee's Lust, Caution is largely being discussed because of its NC-17 rating, which is too bad. But yes, let's get that out of the way: Thanks to a slew of bad reasons—an outdated ratings system, theater chains' fear of protests and boycotts, mass marketability—not a whole lot of NC-17-rated films get wide release in America. (I think the last big one was—wince—Showgirls.) But Universal Studios—albeit through their Focus Features imprint—is releasing Lust, Caution with an NC-17 rating, no doubt hoping that if the controversy around Lee's Brokeback Mountain didn't deter art house crowds, neither will an NC-17.
(The reason for the NC-17? You see some pubic hair. And a glimpse of a scrotum. Annnnd... that's about it. Cool? Cool.)
ANYWAY. Moving on to the things that matter: A story of desperation, dependence, and the sometimes brutal consequences of emotion, Lust, Caution will probably be heralded as one of the best of the year, and for good reason. It's a slow film—one that patiently builds, with Lee's shots lingering on details, meditating on the briefest of nuances and shadows. Beautiful and impressive is Tang Wei, who plays Wang Jiazhi, a young student in Shanghai. World War II is on, Japan occupies the city, and soon, Wang is caught up with a few naïve friends who fancy themselves rebels. Aiming to assassinate Mr. Yee—a government official who's cooperating with the Japanese—the group soon uses Wang as part of a scheme to seduce and kill him.
Mr. Yee is played by Chinese superstar Tony Leung, and along with Wei, he makes Lust, Caution a wrenching story. Newcomer Wei's features convey a shocking sincerity, while the consistently remarkable Leung conjures up an imposing intensity in his performance as the sometimes terrifying, sometimes seductive Mr. Yee. Based on Eileen Chang's short story, the screenplay, by Wang Hui-Ling and frequent Lee collaborator James Schamus, takes great advantage of the emotive power of the leads: Nearly every scene is laden with an undercurrent of desire and pathos, with the film's tone uneasily, constantly hovering near crisis. (This is truer of the last half of the film more than the first—perhaps my only major criticism of the nearly three-hour-long film is that the first act feels too long.)
Lust, Caution is as much of a thriller as it is a painful, disturbing romance, its story as dependent on its characters' secrets as much as their sex. And when Ang Lee does inevitably delve into violence—physical, sexual, psychological—it's with a jarring, visceral intensity. For a film in which one feels as if they can't help but know the characters intimately, Lust, Caution is relentlessly unpredictable in its story of people caught in circumstances they can never entirely control. And as Wang and Mr. Yee desperately scheme, hope, and fuck, their bodies far more honest than their words, it becomes evident that Lust, Caution's audience is also giving up control. Luckily, the one who's in charge is Ang Lee, and he knows what he's doing.