Although the sex scenes of ‘Lust, Caution’ have overshadowed the plot of the movie in the media, the heroine of the story is activist as much as seductress. Tang Wei plays both with depth and feeling
When Ang Lee (李安) was casting the female lead in his World War II sex and espionage melodrama, Lust, Caution (色戒), he gave his assistant director the gnomic instruction, “What others don’t want, I’ll take.” The assistant director understood: “No oval face, no big-eyed Barbie, no long-limbed, willowy mannequin.”
Tang Wei (湯唯), a rising television star who won the part over more famous competitors, is none of those pretty things. She’s better: the sort of deeply expressive actress who can look ordinary one moment and utterly captivating the next.
Lust, Caution gives her ample opportunity and, in a performance of astonishing passion and complexity, she makes the most of it. As part of an assassination plot by a student resistance group in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, Tang’s Wang Jia-zhi (王佳芝) goes undercover to seduce the government’s extremely dangerous intelligence chief, played by the charismatic superstar Tony Leung (梁朝偉) (2046, Infernal Affairs, 無間道).
Wang’s transformation from idealistic bluestocking to bombshell seductress is the sort of trope that spy movies thrive on. But Tang makes it much more powerful – both an ordeal and an awakening – and so nakedly intimate that it becomes the central drama of the film.
The visual contrast between Tang’s plain, somewhat artless activist and chic, red-lipped coquette is so startling that it signals how radical her transformation is. The spontaneous sparks between her sexually inexperienced student and Leung’s cynical spy combust unexpectedly into a love affair raw enough to earn the movie an NC-17 rating, and sufficiently fierce and consuming that for Wang, at least, it amounts to a fiery furnace. Tang expresses the toll this takes with subtle ingenuity, as the two characters she’s playing begin to fuse, Wang’s submissiveness dissolving along with her idealism and the seductress’ coquetry giving way to something more urgent and disturbing.
Perhaps Tang’s most electrifying moment in a movie full of them arrives when Wang’s reports back to her male handlers and, in the most graphic terms possible, tells them just what carrying out their mission is doing to her, the intimacy of it and the corruption. They look stunned, as well they might. Their obedient comrade has become something great and terrible, an outraged, anguished woman belching fire even as, internally, she goes down in flames.