When I was an undergraduate in Washington D.C., during the Johnson Administration, the Circle Theater had an Ingmar Bergman Festival that ran for several days. I remember cutting classes to go to double and triple features of that great director’s films in hopes of seeing Harriet Andersson naked or Bibi Andersson naked or any other actress, named Andersson or not, naked. Such delights were still a few years away in mainstream American movies. Amazingly enough, I absorbed bits of Bergman’s cinematic vision along with visions of the glorious Anderssons, and my interest in foreign films began.
Sex in non-pornographic movies is problematic. You risk taking the viewer out of the narrative and into contemplating an actor or actress’s normally covered bits. Ang Lee manages not to do this in “Lust, Caution”. The actors are naked and the sex is realistic enough that it got an “NC-17” rating from the MPAA (they’re particularly down on thrusting and there’s lots of that) but the sex is not arousing and it absolutely furthers the plot in a way that is rarely seen.
The film is set before and during WWII and is about a young woman (played by Wei Tang), an idealistic student supporter of the Chinese Nationalist Government, who takes on the task of becoming the mistress of an official (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) in the Chinese Collaborationist Government, a torturer and executioner, so that she can set up his assassination. She succeeds eventually in becoming his mistress but through watching their sex together and other aspects of their relationship we see the complications developing. No spoilers!
People who don’t like the film complain that it takes too long getting to the sex but I think the pace is necessary to build the tension. The rest of the cast is as good as the principal actors and the film is beautifully shot. I find it a minor masterpiece and wish that it had been seen by more people last year.