Directed by Ang Lee, this is the follow-up to his Oscar-winning film "Brokeback Mountain" (2005). Again, this is a story about two people who fall in love who ultimately can't be together and ends in the death of one of them.
Set in 1940s China, the film centers on a young woman who is recruited by student rebels in an espionage plot to assassinate a Chinese collaborator in the Japanese occupation.
Tang Wei plays Wong Chia Chi, a college-aged Chinese girl who becomes separated from her family during the war and even loses some family to it. Singer-turned-actor Wang Leehom plays Kuang Yu Min, a radical nationalist who is using a stage theater to fundraise Chinese resistance groups. Veteran actor Tony Leung ("Infernal Affairs" and "2046") plays Mr. Yee, the war collaborator whom they both want to kill.
As with his previous effort, Ang Lee evokes great performances out of each of these three actors to create three highly interesting characters. The film is slow starting, but after a while we're eventually absorbed by what becomes a sexual intrigue that hangs over the movie.
The political intrigue is lost here, somewhat slightly, as the writer and director fail to truly explain the nature of the situation in China. This is not all together a negative criticism. We don't really need to know the struggles of Chiang Kai-shek or the details of the Japanese campaign in this time.
Through peripheral and atmospheric elements, Ang Lee gives us a general sense of what the Japanese were doing, or what their occupation meant. We don't even get a real explanation of why the collaborators are collaborators. Gossiping women playing mahjong doesn't really do it justice. When Kuang Yu Min yells that Mr. Yee is a traitor, a lap dog to Wang Jingwei, we feel the angered emotion, yet there is no context.
Unless you've studied Chinese history, or you innately understand the hostile and aggressive relationship between China and Japan, then you won't get why this angered emotion is significant or who Wang Jingwei was. The only thing you get is the Japanese are bad, and Mr. Yee, who works for them, is bad too.
In a plot that doesn't really make logical sense, Wong Chia Chi is given a false name and a false life story. She's sent to infiltrate Mr. Yee's household, become friends with his wife and find a way to get close to him and alone in order to kill him.
One of the resistance members argues just sacrificing this undercover scheme and killing Mr. Yee outright. There is a scene where they practice shooting but never agan do you see them wielding guns. Besides Wong Chia Chi feeding back information about where Mr. Yee goes, it seems as if the purpose of the assassination plot is all but lost.
In one scene, Wong Chia Chi goes to a movie theater and watches Alfred Hitchcock's suspense film "Suspicion," which was about a wife who believes her husband is trying to kill her. Wong Chia Chi, who eventually begins an affair with Mr. Yee, has a similar fear, though it's the reverse that should be true.
Ang Lee does a good job of developing this dred towards the end, but before then brilliantly releases tension by way of a bloody and violent scene that's very reminiscent of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," Act III, Scene 1, though not with the Caesar-like character here, Mr. Yee, who actually is more like a Brutus, but with one of Mr. Yee's minions, for lack of a better word. The scene also brilliantly reveals the passion and naivety that show up on Kuang Yu Min and Wong Chia Chi's faces.
That passion and naivety also fuels the sexual intrigue that hangs over the movie. With any film, there's always an air of lust, but Ang Lee really lays it on here. At a dinner, the flirtation isn't even all that subtle between Wong Chia Chi and Mr. Yee. Wong Chia Chi tries to lure him with that lust, but Mr. Yee is cautious.
It does come to a head, and Ang Lee answers his critics who said in his previous film that he didn't have enough sex between his two main characters. Don't let the authentic, yet conservative, production design fool you. The tight, form-fitting, bawdy dresses that Wong Chia Chi boasts are indicative of what the latter half of this film is all about.
Ang Lee literally thrusts us into the raw, hard, and rough intercourse between Yee and Chia Chi. The various scenes are powerful. The ripped clothing, the pounding action, the naked bodies intertwined all pop like a corkscrew. Representing only about 10 to 15 minutes of a 15- minute movie, Lee succeeds on making this the sexiest film of 2007.
Four Stars out of Five
Rated NC-17 for explicit sex
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 38 mins.