On a whim during my "lie low, be a homebody, save some money" weekend, I rented Ang Lee's Lust, Caution from my local Rogers Video. If you haven't already seen it, I highly recommend the film. Part espionage thriller, part historical time capsule, Lust, Caution tells the tale of a young female university student, Wong Chai Chi, who flees to Hong Kong to escape the Japanese occupation of China in the late 1930s. While in Hong Kong, she falls in with the radical students of the drama club who plot the assassination of a Chinese man, Yee, collaborating with the Japanese. Their plan: Get Chai Chi to seduce Yee, lure him somewhere secluded, and kill him. Alas, the plan falls through and Chai Chi returns to Japanese-occupied Shanghai. Years later, she meets the leader of the drama club in Shanghai, and he recruits her to be part of the grimmer, more professional Shanghai resistance movement. Chai Chi poses as the well-to-do wife of a Hong Kong businessman (Mak Tai Tai) and succeeds in seducing Yee, but at what cost to herself?
There are so many fantastic things I could say about this movie. I love the "play within a play" device that the film uses to contrast the propagandist drivel of the drama club's production with what happens to Chai Chi; very Shakespearean. The drama club production places the struggle against the Japanese in the countryside and implies it's led by rural farmers, and relegates women to a supporting role. In reality, we see that Chai Chi puts herself in great danger and sacrifices herself in every way, while the men in the resistance effort can't seem to get their act together. The film as a whole is memorable for its nuanced performances, stark sensuality, masterful art direction, and compelling story.
The more serious stuff aside, how about those fabulous period costumes? Shanghai chic for the upper classes seems to consist of extravagant fine jewelry (a 6-carat diamond ring has a cameo), silky qipao dresses, and Western-style trenches, hats, mid-heel shoes, and oversize leather clutches. I love the sophistication of Mak Tai Tai's look. If I ever leave tech writing and join CSIS, I'd love to look half as good as she does while on the job!