Just such a situation is the heart of Lee's intense, psychologically intricate and sexually explicit film fleshed out by his longtime collaborators Wang Hui Ling and James Schamus. They worked from a short story by influential Chinese writer Eileen Chang about a disturbing love affair set in China during the years of its World War II occupation by the Japanese.
While the nearly 2-hour, 40-minute "Lust" is as deliberately paced and as determined to take its time as the most rarefied art film, its story is an unapologetic wartime melodrama, centering as it does on spies, assassination plots, adultery and several kinds of betrayal.
As melodramas go, however, this is an unmistakably adult one, as Lee has been careful to bring subtlety and sophistication to these undeniably pulpy premises. But yet again, though he cares deeply about character and psychology, about what goes on in the mind, the director has also been body-conscious enough to understand that this story needed the kind of unembarrassed, acrobatic sex that earned "Lust, Caution" an unapologetic NC-17 rating.
Those three relatively brief sexual encounters are the distillation of 154 grueling hours of filming in front of only the director, top-drawer cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and two assistants, a period that was so hyperintense that one crew member called it "11 days in hell."
Yet existing alongside this focus on what went on in small spaces behind tightly closed doors is an interest in epic, panoramic history that led to the construction of a full-size replica of a sizable stretch of a 1942 Shanghai street, a standing set that encompassed 182 dressed, stocked and aged storefronts. Noted Lee, who has "Sense & Sensibility" among his credits, "re-creating Jane Austen's era was easier."
The existence of that street underlines that what is really significant about "Lust, Caution" is not its NC-17 rating but that it is Lee's first Chinese-language film since "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000) and his first anywhere since winning the best director Oscar for "Brokeback Mountain" in 2006.
Clearly it would take a story that wouldn't let him go to bring back the filmmaker, and Chang's tale, which she revised again and again for more than 25 years before it was published in 1979, has been on Lee's mind for quite some time. It also allowed him to explore a critical period of Chinese history, the years of the Japanese occupation, which the rest of the world has all but forgot- en.
Though it's longer than the story that became "Brokeback Mountain," Chang's narrative is so sparely written that the screen credit might have been "suggested by." "Lust, Caution's" script turns hints into incidents and deepens the story's emotions while smartly teasing out the implications of what is on the page. "We just had to fill in the spaces she laid out," Lee has said, but there is more to it than that, including a change in emphasis and tone in the denouement that is critical.
"Lust, Caution" begins in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in 1942, inside the residential compound for high officials of the Chinese collaborationist government, a well-guarded enclave where the soothing click of tiles punctuates a mah-jongg game among the wives of the powerful hosted by Yee Tai Tai (Joan Chen).
Her husband, Mr. Yee (Leung), makes a brief appearance at the game. He is an opaque, taciturn presence (the opposite of the charming types Leung often plays) whose vaguely sinister edge fits with his occupation as the head of the intelligence service of the collaborationist regime. The merest hint of a look passes between him and another of the wives at the table, the svelte and sophisticated Mak Tai Tai (Tang Wei), but this is the kind of film where looks of any kind are significant.
Almost immediately Mak Tai Tai makes an excuse to leave the game. She goes to a cafe in downtown Shanghai, where she makes a phone call to a group of men, sits down at a table and begins to remember the past, specifically events in Hong Kong four years earlier, that the film then extensively flashes back to.
Mak Tai Tai, then called Wong Chia Chi, was, as were many Chinese at that time, a refugee, a young and innocent freshman at a university where she meets the idealistic and handsome theater director Kuang Yu Min (Chinese pop star Wang Leehom). Impelled by her crush on the director, Wong Chia Chi attaches herself to his dramatic troupe. It turns out that she is a natural actress, emotional enough to cry at movies but possessed as well of a gift for improvisation and dissimulation. When Kuang wants to move from theater to actual political action, she of course goes along.
Kuang's idea is to set a trap for and then assassinate Mr. Yee, already a top collaborator. An entire fake life is to be constructed for Wong Chia Chi, assigned to remake herself into the wealthy young wife Mak Tai Tai, who is to befriend Yee's wife with an eye toward becoming Mr. Yee's mistress, the easier to lead him to his death.
Wong Chia Chi falls easily into this impersonation, and Mr. Yee is unmistakably attracted to her. But once this point is reached, nothing goes simply, nothing happens the way anyone anticipated. Kuang and his troupe of tyro assassins are younger and more in over their heads than they realize, and things get emotionally and operationally out of hand with a rapidity that is stunning.
Yet, fatefully, this is only the beginning of the story. Coincidence places Mr. Yee and the woman he thinks of as Mak Tai Tai in each other's orbits three years later, and again this woman, more mature, not as naive or idealistic as she was before, agrees to restart the plot.
The relationship between Mr. Yee and this woman with a divided identity is the central dynamic of "Lust, Caution," and it is especially compelling because both participants are playing roles within roles, engaging in intricate double and triple games that get so complex they become ensnared in entanglements neither one anticipates or wants. Mutual deception, it turns out, has consequences on all sides of the equation.
The one place the protagonists are naked, both literally and psychologically, is when they make love, and the sex scenes in "Lust, Caution" are both explicit and essential to understanding character and motivation. Though the sex is graphic, it is by no means loving; in fact the hostility of the first encounter recalls the sexual initiation in "Brokeback Mountain." While they might not admit it, this appears to be the only place where the protagonists are honest with each other, where the complex, tortured, ever-changing relationship between them plays itself out.
Leung, used to emotional complexity after six films with director Wong Kar Wai, is excellent, but the film's breakout performance is by Tang Wei, who brings a shocking intensity and a remarkable range of emotions to the table. The 27-year-old actress has worked in theater and television, but the fact that Ingmar Bergman is her favorite director has stood her in good stead here. Tang Wei so connected with this tormented woman that by the end of shooting, she says, "the character wanted to hold me, like the roots of a tree."
The tree that supported her, and the whole film, through an exhausting 118-day shooting schedule was Lee, whose mastery of the filmmaking process increases with every project and who felt especially close to this one. Surrounding himself with an excellent team, including his longtime editor Tim Squyres, composer Alexandre Desplat and production/costume designer Pan Lai, Lee has made a film of ambition and accomplishment, one that is both a summation of all he knows and a promise of even greater achievement in the future.
"Lust, Caution." MPAA rating: NC-17 for some explicit sexuality. Running time: 2 hours, 38 minutes. In limited release.