The graphic sex in Ang Lee's Lust, Caution made its NC-17 rating a foregone conclusion, given the MPAA's tendency to blush over the slightest hint of pubic hair. However, without wanting to legislate how an artist expresses himself, one wonders if toning down the sex might have brought this engrossing and epic spy film to a wider audience. Because of a few minutes of gymnastic intercourse, many viewers were deprived the two-plus hours of schemes and machinations related to the assassination of a high-ranking Chinese traitor during the Japanese occupation of China. But Lee's film doesn't function merely as a fascinating procedural on covert operations by freedom fighters; it also explores the moral and emotional consequences of entrenching with the enemy. As Mak Tai Tai, Tang Wei makes a perfectly conflicted central figure, charged with luring Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) by whatever means necessary. Lust, Caution makes it painfully clear that the resistance leadership is just as callous and unyielding as this cruel Japanese collaborator, refusing to think twice about prostituting Mak Tai Tai to achieve the desired outcome. Her tragedy is twofold. Not only did she join the revolution for the love of the very man who's asking her to ruin herself, but by dangling out there for so long, while the leadership squanders opportunities in order to stockpile intelligence, she ends up developing genuine feelings for Yee. And here the need for intense sex scenes becomes clear. The comingling of bodies symbolizes how the lines have blurred between performance and reality, how Mak Tai Tai can no longer dispassionately doom a lover she never even wanted. The film is filled with superb performances and wonderfully observed details, and Lee's camera misses nothing. In this world of calculation and deception, even the shuffling of mahjong tiles has ominous overtones.
by Derek Armstrong review