Lusty? Check. Ladies, gents: we’ve got ourselves some positions. Remember the contortionist puppet sex in Team America: World Police? Wait until you see the tussles here at about the 90-minute mark. Remember the sauce that smoothie-moody star Tony Leung dished in Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046, after the director’s chaste In The Mood For Love? He tries 3,046 positions here. We’re talking gymnastic. Brokeback Mountain? You’ll break something, mounting like this.
The bottom line, though, is that this already-notorious sex delivers depth charges. Ang Lee’s spy saga packs plot-flavoured parallels with Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, but while the Dutch prince of perversion dallies in prurience, Lee layers lusts with mixed meanings. The action between the sheets and elsewhere takes place between the lines, looks and gestures subtly articulating motives and emotions.
With this in mind, Lee doesn’t hustle us into bed. He wants patience. Again working from a script co-penned by James Schamus, the Crouching Tiger director teases almost three hours’ worth from Eileen Chang’s short – yes, short – story. It starts in ’42, with businessman’s wife Mrs Mak (Tang Wei) playing mah-jong with Mrs Yee ( Joan Chen) and her friends. Mr Yee (Leung) arrives, in the mood for Mrs Mak. Then we cut back to ’38 Shanghai, in Japanese-occupied China. Mrs Mak is really Wong Chia Chi, a student and natural actress who agrees to a political group’s assassination plot. Her mission, which she chooses to accept: to become ‘Mrs Mak’ and coyly seduce Mr Yee, a collaborator with the Japanese.
These undercover spy games come at a cost. Just as Ingrid Bergman’s spy in Hitchcock’s deep, dark Notorious loved boss-agent Cary Grant, so sparks sing between Chia Chi and her dashing recruiter (Wang Leehom). By the time Yee and Mak get jiggy, much has been sacrificed: virginity, innocence, an informer in a very messy killing… and more looks set to follow.
Like Yee and Chia Chi in bed, Lee multi-tasks, combining saucy psycho-drama, character-driven chamber-drama, romantic noir and espionage epic with the same elegance as he juggles timeframes. As in Brokeback, his main concern is the chafing tension and interplay between feelings and their time and place. The near-oppressively picturesque sets function as snapshots of public history buckling and shaping private emotion. In this context, Leung and the dazzling newcomer Wei quietly communicate caged turmoil. Finally, a near-the-close shot over a cliff-edge recalls Crouching Tiger’s end-plunge and adds extra layers: what would you give for love? What happens if you don’t give it?
Granted, Lust’s stealthy claustrophobics might seem less affecting and exciting than Brokeback’s broad emotional spaces and Tiger’s kung-fu fizz. Hang in there, though: suppression is key. Lust develops slowly but its sharp taste is to be savoured. For a quick shag, try elsewhere.