Lust, Caution


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I want to like this film. I really do. It is visually splendid. It is subtle and sophisticated. It offers great insight into the sights and sounds and attitudes or another culture in another time. It has some very hot sex scenes. That's a checklist of movie elements I love, but I just can't bring myself to summon up any enthusiasm for it. It drags on and on and on.

Ang Lee's NC-17 "thriller" about the Japanese occupation of China in WW2 is 160 minutes long, and it begins with a Mah-Jongg game that is - oh, without looking at the DVD timer, I'm going to say 145 minutes long. But it's really a beautiful Mah-Jongg game. Probably the best Mah-Jongg game ever filmed. Pretty tiles! The women who are playing the game wear beautiful dresses. Everyone exchanges mysterious glances, the players cast their eyes on other players. Some of the other players meet their eyes, while others smoke mysteriously and avert their glances. Some of the players exchange glances with a man who observes the game. He is married to one of the women, but exchanges more glances with a younger women. Close-ups of hands and tiles. More glances. More tiles. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this film is the Citizen Kane of NC-17 Mah-Jongg movies. This film is to Mah-Jongg as The Brown Bunny is to traffic.

But it's not all Mah-Jongg, nosiree. The game is followed by a flashback to a few minutes of sex, then back to the game, then kind of a surprise ending. I don't want to spoil the ending for you if you wait all 160 minutes for it, but suffice it to say that one of the Mah-Jongg players plays a really unexpected tile. And with a really subtle glance!

I'm exaggerating, of course. The film is really an Asian equivalent to Paul Verheoven's Black Book. Both films are about a WW2 occupation (the Nazis in Holland, the Japanese in China). In both cases, the resistance enlists a virgin in the entertainment field to seduce a high-ranking politico (a Nazi in one, a collaborator in the other). In both cases, the virgin will be required to have hot sex with her pigeon, and will therefore have to be "broken in" by fellow members of the resistance before she can begin her assignment. In both cases, the woman ends up falling for the man she is assigned to seduce. The films have other common elements. The lead actress in both cases has an extremely demanding role that requires a wide range of talents, and a willingness to do some extensive nudity and vigorous sex scenes.

Beyond the point I have described, the stories diverge considerably, both in terms of the plot points and the sensibility of the films. Verhoeven's film really is a pulpy thriller which maintains a rapid pace and is filled with action, suspense, and plot twists. It is also a film which encompasses a wide range of tone shifts. Ang Lee's self-important film is really a somber, one-note philosophical drama which focuses on atmosphere and characterization and an examination of the nature of love. If you watch it thinking you're going to see a sexy thriller, you will probably find yourself asleep in your chair after about an hour, during which there have been no thrills and no sex.

Unless you're into Mah-Jongg. If you love Mah-Jongg the way I love baseball, this is your Bull Durham, The Natural, and Field of Dreams rolled into one!

Lust, Caution is based upon a novella that was begun not long after the events pictured in the film. It was published in 1979, but Ellen Chang said that she had been working on it for a quarter of a century before that, even though it is a very short and ambiguous work. Hey, ambiguity is difficult to do well. Ang Lee tried to turn that ambiguity into a concrete storyline without losing its subtlety. The problem is that there is a point beyond which subtlety is simply tedious, and this film tends to cross it.

But what beautiful tedium!



* features not yet announced







Nominated for the Golden Globe for best foreign language film.

3.5 James Berardinelli (of 4 stars)
3 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)

Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)

Note: only 48% from the top critics

60 (of 100)


8.1 IMDB summary (of 10)
B Yahoo Movies


Box Office Mojo. It received arthouse distribution in the USA, maxxing out at 143 theaters, finishing with a $4 million gross. On the other hand, it was a significant international hit, grossing $47 million outside the USA.


  • Tony Leung shows everything
  • Wei Tang shows everything


Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


A beautifully rendered film. But soporific.