I had wanted to like Lust, Caution. It was directed by Ang Lee, who gave us Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It starred Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, whom I adore. It quickly gained a reputation for graphic sex scenes, so much so that the two lead actors, Leung and Tang Wei, had to defend themselves from rumors that they were actually filmed having sex. For a filthy yet snobby little soul like myself, this should have been a perfect marriage of classy arthouse cinema with a smattering of erotic scenes to tide over my inner bawdy wench.
Ever watch a film that begins to feel like you’re running a marathon and all you wind up getting at the end is a cup of lukewarm water and a t-shirt that’s two sizes too small? Yeah, that’s what Lust, Caution wound up being for me.
|I’m still side-eying you.
Where did we go wrong? I can answer that. In two issues, no less.
#1 – It’s boring as fuck
I did not intend that pun, but it stays, considering that “as fuck” is now pretty much a universal unit of measurement. Here’s my huge beef with this one: it’s horribly paced. Lee seems to suffer from this problem frequently; it becomes more and more apparent as you witness more of his work. It was easy to overlook with Crouching, but then it became more apparent in Brokeback Mountain. By the time we hit this one, the pacing is all over the place to the point where I was mentally drawing parallels to a hyperactive child that can’t decide if he wants to ride bikes, play with action figures or jump on a trampoline before being told that he’s still got three hours left of school and he needs to sit still. (I’ve had some time to think about that description, as you can tell.) It seemed to have trouble figuring out if it wanted to jump forward in the plot before it went right back to building atmosphere and backstory. By the time Lee got around to something relevant, I was too bored to care.
|An accurate representation of me watching this, albeit with far more emotion than I could muster.
Now here’s where it pains me to say this: I love backstory. Really, I do. If I’m writing something, I make damn sure that I know the birth, life events and ancestry of every character I’m crafting. The devil is in the details, and boy do I love me some devil. In film, though, this is tricky because not everything in print becomes filmable. The audience doesn’t need to know every detail; it’s the director’s job to figure out what’s filmable and what’s not. Not everything is filmable, hence why VALIS has not been made into a major motion picture. I think that with tighter writing, though, we could have brought in these details from Eileen Chang’s novella of the same name (or crafted backstory that wasn’t there which would have been equally as satisfying) without anywhere near this level of boredom. I didn’t need to see the play and night out drinking. I didn’t need to get as much detail with the wives’ banter in the mahjong game. I didn’t need multiple scenes of the women chatting. I did not need long panning shots. Want to know when this got interesting? When Yee and Mak Tai Tai are flirting over dinner… an hour in to run time. Yup, that’s right – we wait an entire hour before anything engaging happens. That is not good. Even worse? We go right from that point where it was actually interesting back into the backstory of our female lead. At this point, we’ve already seen her go from awkward girl to budding revolutionary to baby-faced seductress. We don’t need to see this yet again. I get what’s going on. My personal vaudeville hook was ready to go in the wings, but to be honest, I was starting to contemplate if a paper cut to the wrist would be enough to kill me. It was a tough competition.
Oh, and another thing – the whole premise of this was pretty implausible. You really expect me to believe that a group of impulsive, sloppy students somehow were going to assassinate a high-ranking government official? Their plans were shoddy, they were being watched, and they would have been killed after their first attempt (if they even got that far). We would never have gotten to see seduction 2.0 because oneh half of the pair would have been long dead, or, at the very least, would have had a massive file on her. Let’s face it, the Chinese government has never been one for letting shit like that slide. Boredom + implausibility = I cannot even.
The impact of this left me incredible antsy, in part because I knew that some graphic sex was coming. After that much build up, that much boredom, that much film that presented itself like poorly-written World War II intrigue fan fiction that was written by someone who had never cracked a book on the subject, I needed something to make this snoozefest worth it. God did I need something. I knew that sex was coming. I had my hopes up. Things were going to be okay because we were about to get some good old fashioned fucking. Which leads me to my next point of contention.
#2 – The sex scenes
Here it is. The thing that kept me going through one hour and forty minutes of political intrigue (in a loose manner of speaking) and over-wrought storytelling. We have lots and lots of build up andn notoriety here. It’s okay that we had to suffer through a plot that just wouldn’t have happened in the real world and poor pacing. We were about to get some scandal, something that caused recuts in some countries and an NC-17 rating in others. It was going to make this whole mess worth it.
Let me preface this by stating that a well-done love scene can be titillating. Let’s be honest: best case scenario, you’re going home with some new ideas to try out (or some vivid replay for a solo round). In the U.S., NC-17 is code for “the good stuff.” It was going to be realistic — no Scott Speedman going to town on Kate Beckinsale’s belly button in this one! This one was NC-17! It had word-of-mouth behind it! There was a voyeuristic curiosity behind it.
This film’s sex scenes so did not hit the spot. For a film this artsy and completely unrealistic in how it approached a political situation, it sure managed to really capture just how meh sex can be between two people. Between Leung looking dead-eyed and the worst string selection that could have been chosen
playing in the background, it was far less sexy and way more painful than it should have been. Thing is, it wasn’t even that extreme in terms of the sexual sadism that our female lead later described to someone else. He looked bored and she looked like she was trying to pass off having a good time. That may have been part of the plot and/or characters, but the impact wound up being more of a, “Wait a minute, I waited all this time, and these two can’t even muster a smile?” Oh, and let’s not forget the odd mini-montage at the one hour and fifty-minute mark. And the beautifully-timed line, “You should get me an apartment.” Because what man doesn’t dream of hearing that expression of devotion thirteen seconds after blowing a load.
|While you’re at it, I need a stove too.
Really, though, after that much build up and that much suffering, I found myself more appalled than turned on. It wasn’t messy at all; it was like amateur porn, but without the good lighting. I can see where it was questioned if these two were actually doing the deed on film, but in no way did it have the effect of either implied or actual porn. It wasn’t even good porn. I’d go so far as to wager that the best porn in this mess is the huge diamond at the end of the film.While I’m not one to body shame, I never want to see these actors naked again. Ever. Never, ever. Not my body type, either one. I’m sure they’re very nice people in real life. They can continue to be nice people, preferably with clothes on in my presence.
Want to know who nailed a killer love scene? Lee Pace and Troy Garity in Soldier’s Girl. The scene where Barry goes down on Calpernia? HOT. Well-acted, showed just enough. Some amazing work. This one? Nowhere near close.
What does this prove? That this movie coasted along on its notoriety rather than any other laurels. It was long, drawn-out, and in the end, decidedly unsexy. I felt like I was cheated out of what could have been a great story with another … oh, who the hell am I kidding. It’s not even a good story. I want my two hours and forty minutes of life back.