Director Ang Lee doesn't skimp on telling details. And once again working from an acutely observant short story, Lee painstakingly includes the details that give Eileen Chang's titular tale such vivid life: the desirable rarity of a pink diamond during Japanese-occupied Shanghai during WWII, the gold chain clasps on a woman's cape, and colorful pinwheels on a pedicab's handlebars. Unfortunately, his main characters feel just as meticulously chosen and trapped in amber, never once convincingly trembling with the title's passions.
And it is passion--from The Ice Storm through Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain--that Lee has so gracefully handled. Here that passion is a complex dance between a man and woman. Former university student and actress Wang Chia-Chi (Tang Wei) joins a student resistance cell to infiltrate the house of Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) and his wife (Joan Chen). Yee works with the police arm of the occupying Japanese government in Shanghai, and the cell wants to honey-pot ensnare Yee with Wong--posing as Mai Tai-tai, the wife of a Hong Kong businessman--for an assassination attempt.
The entire ploy occupies four years, which Chang's short story effortlessly intertwines in breezy prose that takes maybe 45 minutes to read, tumbling back to Wang's Hong Kong student days, her first theater experience, and the student cell's initial play for Yee. Lee and screenwriters James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang greatly expand this only vaguely hinted at backstory, drawing out the peripheral characters surrounding Wang to provide more conventional motivations for such resistance--as if today's global audience might not understand how one country's citizens might bridle at a governing foreign power.
These extrapolations mire Lust in the familiar. By trying to lend narrative weight to the central drama--Yee and Wang's sexual tango that never decides if it's a seduction or trap until it's too late--the movie literalizes the story's motivations, implications, and delicious subtleties. The modest hubbub over the movie's NC-17 is merely prudish critics' gasps; the only problem with this fervent lovemaking is that it doesn't complement or even complicate Wang's and Yee's characters, once again merely literalizing what remains sensuously elusive on the page.
What makes Chang's "Lust, Caution" such an intriguing read is how it initially appears to conform to espionage-thriller conventions before seductively stripping them away, discarding politics and power relationships and social duplicity as it climbs completely inside the mind of a young women at the very center of the vertiginous drama--until it doesn't. Why and when it doesn't is what lends the story its resonant power, and it's the one detail Lee fails to re-create. Eileen Chang used the spy story to explore the murky depths of being human; Ang Lee uses a story about being and becoming to tell a spy story. Lust, Caution is a sumptuous and exceptional spy story by all means--but nothing more.