CINEMA: In The Kingdom Of The Senseless

lust_caution_500.jpgLUST, CAUTION (2007. Directed by Ang Lee, 157 minutes, U.S./China/Taiwan)
THE KINGDOM (
2007. Directed by Peter Berg, 110, USA)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC

Caution: Lust! It’s a little pathetic that a few scenes of canoodling can overwhelm the advance word on Ang Lee’s excellent new wartime drama Lust, Caution. With the success of Brokeback Mountain Lee has done what few film directors dare, that is demanding an NC-17 rating rather than cut back its emphatic and very specific scenes of sex. It’s an embarrassing reminder of the weird dichotomy of the U.S.’s view of sex: It teases us from every billboard and magazine, but attempts to represent it with honesty or curiosity are shunned as perversion.

All this attention planted expectations that Lee’s latest was going to be some claustrophobic screw-a-thon, instead of a gracefully-told and somewhat old-fashioned story of spies, resistance and a brave damsel in distress. Despite its timeworn scenario, Lust, Caution is one of Ang Lee’s most intriguing and fully realized works.

Beginning in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, the film follows newcomer Wai Tang as Jiazhi Wang, a pretty and naive college acting student who falls under the spell of radical student Kuang (Lee-hom Wang). Kuang’s political passion compels a group of young actors to attempt a secret subversion of local Chinese collaborators, setting their sights on wealthy political figure Mr. Lee (the subtly dazzling Tony Leung).

At one point the poster for Hitchcock’s Suspicion is seen in a theater’s lobby, but Lust, Caution resembles another of Hitchcock’s films, 1946’s masterpiece Notorious. In that film Cary Grant is the government agent who pimps out his girlfriend Ingrid Bergman so she can seduce Nazi collaborator Claude Rains. Lust, Caution expands on the premise so we find out more about the relationship between the seducer and her prey, expertly working the tension as we await to see who is the cat and who is the mouse in this dangerous game.

The film direction shares the concise control of Notorious despite stretching over two and half hours, with closekingdom-poster-1.jpg attention paid to period detail and the character’s shifting identities and alliances. There’s been some critical griping on the film’s Lean-like length (seems American audiences like everything super-sized except their movies) yet its slowly unfolding details and the cast’s restrained performances give Lust, Caution a resemblance to the sort of well-turned literary adaptations that were common place in the 1940s and ’50s.Tony Leung (from John Woo’s Hard Boiled and Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love ) in particular gives a performance worthy of Bogart, the deepening lines in his face suggesting a intensification of the weariness that this actor exudes so well. We hear horrible things about his Mr. Lee, although for much of the film he seems to be timid and lost in thought. He’ll even sit in on the ladies mahjong game if a player doesn’t show. Yet it is in those sex scenes that we first see the savagery of which he’s capable.

Adapted from a short story by Eileen Chang, the script by Ang Lee’s long-time collaborator James Schamus builds itself toward a devastating final act in which the characters must decide whether they are going to let their hearts or their politics drive their actions. For a war film, Lee’s politics are kept surprisingly out of view although our sympathies are unavoidably with those resisting occupation. What is left resonating at the end of this film is not just the physical destruction wrought by war wreaks but the emotional and psychological toll that reverberates through the population as well. “He’s like a snake that is working itself into my heart” Jiazhi says of the disturbed Mr. Lee, and yet she might as well be speaking of war itself.

***

Political subtlety was the last thing I was expecting from Peter Berg’s new action film The Kingdom, but the crazed jingoism of the trailer is surprisingly finessed as this detective story runs it’s predictable course.

It opens with a summer baseball game that could be happening anywhere until you realize you’re in a gated Saudi Arabian community of U.S. oil workers and their families. In a riveting scene of mayhem the ball game is descended upon by a phalanx of machine-gunning Arabs in SUVs and as help arrives a time-bomb finishes the scene. The U.S. has its hands tied until a cagey Jamie Foxx pulls some strings and gets a crack team of just four investigators into the country on a five-day mission to crack the case.

The Saudi cops are completely clueless on how to run an investigation until Foxx arrives with his Super Friends. Jennifer Garner is Super Hot, Justin “Teen Wolf Too” Bateman is Super Funny and Chris Cooper is Super Wise. Jeremy Piven arrives later to do his Super Annoying act as well. Ali Suliman plays Sgt. Haytham, the best-looking of the Arabs on the scene and the only one who has the good sense to get out of the hyper-competent Americans’ way.

Wait a minute: an American mission in the Middle East that is super-efficient and over in a week? Isn’t that an attractive fantasy! Yes it is, and I must say, like a big screen CSI: Saudi Arabia, director Berg delivers some thrills with a sturdy competence of his own, showing some especially spooky searches of Saudi tenements that allow its undeniably strong cast to make us care. But even with its less-than-triumphant ending, The Kingdom suffers by telling its viewers what to think rather than giving us something to chew over by ourselves.

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