“Beautiful” and “cruel” — that's how director Ang Lee describes Eileen Chang's 1979 short story about obsessive love and effortless betrayal in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, a tale upon which Lee has based his epic-length Lust, Caution. Writing in the afterword to a recently republished version of the 54-page story, which took Chang more than two decades to complete, Lee finds in those two words a perfect, aching simplicity somehow lacking in his film. While there is copious beauty and bountiful cruelty in the story about the inexperienced assassin who comes to love and crave her merciless prey, Lee lingers too long in the margins. A short story has needlessly swelled into an epic, and it suffers from the unnecessary inflammation.
It is not difficult to see what Lee and his collaborators, screenwriters James Schamus and Wang Hui Ling, found beguiling in Chang's story. It's a stark, simple work that reveals profound truths in its unadorned sentences that pile one on top of the other in their breathless race to the heart-crushing finish. Chang's tale, set in early-1940s Shanghai, is almost deceptively straightforward as it tells of a student actress named Wang Chia-chih who enlists in a plot to assassinate the head of the Chinese collaborationist government's secret police, Mr. Yee.
It would seem a rather straightforward job, then, making a movie from so narrowly focused a story wherein a girl sent to take a life instead finds her heart, which betrays her in the end. But Lee and his writers struggle mightily to make corporeal so elusive a thing as the madness and ache caused by profound and even violent longing. They have tried, yes, with the sex scenes featuring Wang Chia-chih (Tang Wai) and Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) that earned Lust, Caution its NC-17 rating. But in truth, those trysts are no more provocative or enlightening than those on HBO's Tell Me You Love Me. (In both cases, it's amazing how something so cold is expected to generate so much heat.)
Narratively, Lee, Schamus, and Ling closely hew to the original story, which begins around a mah-jongg table where wealthy ladies bide their time between obsessing over meals and fixating on each other's sparkling brooches and rings. Wang is among the women, though she's infiltrated the group as Mrs. Mak, wife of a wealthy businessman, to get close to her target, Mr. Yee.
Fifteen minutes later, Lee begins his game of narrative ping-pong, as he reveals just who Wang really is: an innocent enlisted in a plot to kill Yee, a brute, we are told, doing the dirty work of the Japanese invaders. We move forward a little, back a little, forward a little more — it's the long, slow tease before the full-on fuck that comes an hour and 45 minutes in, long after many in the audience will have given up on the title's promise of lust.
Several years after an initial plot to assassinate Yee goes awry — the wrong people are killed, and hiding places must be found — Wang once more ingratiates herself into the Yee household, where she finally begins a torrid, often violent, affair with Mr. Yee, for whom there's a fine line between romance and rape. But what Chang wrote about eloquently and succinctly — how easily the noblest intentions can be corrupted by love, or at least the promise and smell of it — Lee and his writers lose in translation.
In the end, Lee's latest foray into forbidden love is too often as monotonous and disaffecting as Brokeback Mountain was gripping and immediate. It suffers from the same malady that afflicts the brand-new The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, also an adaptation of an unassuming, uncomplicated, and wholly engaging literary work: Both movies try way too hard to turn the ethereal into the literal and wind up confusing deep for deadly dull. Worse, Lee and Assassination director Andrew Dominik seem to believe that these stories of beautiful people (or, at least, Tony Leung and Brad Pitt) doing ugly deeds must be as pretty as perfume ads. And the results are distancing and distracting. These aren't people anymore, just props set loose on art-directed sets photographed by men for whom lovely surfaces are deep enough.