Kino Lorber debuts Ang Lee’s WWII drama on a Stateside Blu-ray after fourteen years of undeserved controversy
Note: Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray presentation of Lust, Caution is the uncut 157-minute NC-17 version of the film.
Shanghai, in the waning years of World War II. Wong (Tang Wei), once a budding drama student performing in patriotic plays sympathetic to the Chinese war effort against the Japanese, has spent far too long in the biggest role of her life. By day, Wong is Mrs. Mak, the doting wife of an importer. As Mak, Wong has worked her way into the inner circle of Yee (Tony Leung), a high-ranking Chinese official working in the Japanese puppet government and leader of the secret police. Wong’s goal, thrust upon her by her idealistic drama cohorts, is to seduce Yee and lure him into the perfect moment for an assassination — but the fine line between Wong and her role becomes increasingly blurred as her seduction of Yee is all too effective, forcing Wong to confront her shifting political and sexual identities.
Heralded as much for his gripping, intimate dramatic work as much as his visually-stunning blockbusters, Ang Lee is one of the most versatile filmmakers working today. Trained in the arts both in his native Taiwan and in the United States, Lee’s films have a unique international sensibility all their own, melding an exacting formal precision with widespread cross-cultural emotional appeal. It’s not that one could consider Lee’s films stateless or lacking in a grounded singular cultural identity. Rather, Lee draws from such a rich well of pop culture in his films, ranging from wuxia epics to Jane Austen to Marvel comics (say what you will about Hulk…), that it’d be impossible for audiences around the globe to not find some emotional touchstone in his films to connect with. This extends to Lee’s formal approach as well–his films have a deliberate, measured pacing to them that allows these films to explore the physical and emotional texture behind each moment. From the rugged wilds of Brokeback Mountain, to the dreamlike and torrential oceans of Life of Pi, to the suffocating stillness of suburbia in The Ice Storm, Lee’s worlds are rich with detail that bring to life an equally intricately-built interior world present in his characters. Genre may draw in an international audience at the start of Lee’s films, but what makes them wholly memorable is how rich of an emotional experience they are subsequently treated to over the course of the films’ runtime.
Lust, Caution was Lee’s eagerly-awaited follow-up to Brokeback Mountain, and one that saw Lee return to his native Taiwan to create an epic wartime noir romance. Expectations were high — but discourse quickly shifted to sensationalized criticism of the film’s ten minutes of sex scenes, which grew into further questions of censorship and the agency of its heroine. State Censorship boards in China took umbrage with the graphic nature of the scenes, in addition to the decisions Wong makes in favor of her growing relationship with Mr. Yee over her dedication to the Chinese resistance. Lust, Caution was ultimately released in China in a truncated, sanitized version cut by Lee himself, and Tang Wei, whose work in the film is rather excellent regardless of her status as a debut actress, found herself blacklisted for years. The methodology of the production — using a combination of Taiwanese and American crew, utilizing a script by frequent Lee collaborators Hui-Ling Wang and James Schamus — ran afoul of AMPAS stateside, and the film was rejected from consideration as Taiwan’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film. A perfect storm of controversy, rooted in questions of artistic license, sexual agency, and state control, saw Lust, Caution subject to much of its own thematic concerns–nearly falling victim the same forces that overwhelm its central heroine.
But now, fourteen years after its initial release, Lust, Caution has developed somewhat of a resurgence akin to Lee’s similarly-buried American Civil War epic, Ride with the Devil. Removed from the superficial controversies that stifled Lust, Caution on its debut, audiences and critics alike are able to enjoy Lee’s film for what it is — a complex exploration of love and duty, and the endlessly shifting alliances within. Like Lee’s other films, it’s visually sensuous, rich with period detail that causes your eye to explore every inch of the frame as well as the slight emotional tics of its characters that cause passionate emotions to betray their self-imposed cool exteriors. The performances by both Wei and Leung are first rate, breathing a necessary complicated life to the film’s lead characters. Neither Wong nor Yee are condemned or put on a pedestal for the violent turns their romantic encounters take. Wong, in particular, remains Lee’s focus through the film as a studied examination of the myriad roles women are forced to play to retain whatever romantic, social, or political control they are able to possess in a suffocatingly male-dominated environment. While Wong may grow to betray those who pressure her to engage in the film’s own betrayal plot — Lee refuses to judge Wong based on fleeting notions of what may be considered right or just in terms of the shifting winds of politics.
Like what makes Lee’s films so incredibly accessible the world over — Lee instead focuses on what makes his characters human, and asks his audience to judge them accordingly, regardless of their own backgrounds or allegiances. Lust, Caution is a film whose dedications are towards the heart rather than that of any temporary Nationalistic fervor.
Long inaccessible in HD in the United States, Kino Lorber has released Lust, Caution for the first time on American Blu-ray — and in its uncut original version to boot. With a gulf of time now displacing the film from its initial uproar, yet at a time when controversies between China and the rest of the globe remain at a fever pitch, there isn’t a better time to see one of Ang Lee’s finest films — whether its as an act of rediscovery, or in my case seeing it for the very first time.
Kino Lorber presents Lust, Caution in a 1080p HD transfer in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, with both 5.1-surround channel and 2.0 stereo Chinese audio tracks. English subtitles are presented for foreign-language dialogue, but loses the SDH subtitling for English dialogue previously-available on the original Focus Features DVD. Subtitles are only available for the main feature.
The visual presentation of Lust, Caution here is top-notch, relishing in the deep colors spanning Rodrigo Prieto’s palate for the film. Vivid dark greens, yellows, and blacks are favored in addition to warm skin tones, appropriately reflecting a beauty naturally reflected by the world yet repressed by the central characters. The audio tracks are crisp and clear, with Alexander Desplat’s score providing a deep, resonant undercurrent favoring prolonged, thrumming strings.
- Audio Commentary by film historian and director Eddy Von Mueller. Mueller’s commentary is witty and insightful, providing much needed context for appreciating Lust, Caution’s deeper themes, the political and cultural context both within the film’s period setting and surrounding its existence as a modern (and wholly controversial) Taiwanese-American production amidst a divided Asian global presence, the real-life origins of Lust, Caution’s assassination plot, and the storied careers of Lee and his collaborators.
- Tiles of Deception & Lurid Affections: A 17-minute making-of featurette ported over from the film’s original DVD release. The featurette covers a wide breadth of the film’s production process, containing English-language interviews with the film’s cast and crew. The scope of the production is quite impressive, and it’s remarkable how much of the film’s period detail was practically designed–including re-creating an entire city block of wartime Shanghai.
- Theatrical Trailer for Lust, Caution.
- Trailers for Thirst and Spetters, also from Kino Lorber.
Lust, Caution is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.