Efficient, nasty action scenes can't overcome mostly bland characterizations and a half-baked story.
TORONTO -- If there was ever a director who seems in no danger of repeating himself, that director is Ang Lee. None of his films bears the slightest similarity in subject or tone to any of the others. No doubt there is a subterranean link joining them, but it would take a journey to the center of the earth to find it. And he would be your man to film the journey.
Consider his latest and not even most controversial film, "Lust, Caution," which was a special presentation of the Toronto Film Festival here Friday night. Set in Shanghai during the years of the Japanese occupation of China, it is about politics, students, assassination, Mah-Jongg and a great deal of sex. It is also long, languid and exquisitely beautiful, its camera wandering the world of a privileged class of Chinese who collaborate with the Japanese and profit hugely from the black market.
Let's start with the sex. No, let's start with the Mah-Jongg. Joan Chen plays the spoiled wife of the secret service boss Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai, the Asian Cary Grant). She and her friends complain that their lives are limited to Mah-Jongg and shopping; their conversations around the game table include diamonds, nylons and cigarettes and other black-market bargains.
Into their circle comes Mrs. Wak (Tang Wei), allegedly the wife of a rich merchant, in fact a member of a student revolutionary group that has decided to murder a collaborationist as their summer project. Her assignment: Seduce Mr. Yee and set him up for killing. During a relationship that spans two years, they grow so intimate and passionate that, she observes, for him there is no satisfaction without some blood involved. She doesn't enjoy their sex, exactly, so much as marvel at the intimacy it brings despite her hatred for the man.
The sex scenes are not, as had been rumored, hard core. But they make use of positions also employed in Lee's "Brokeback Mountain," The Kama Sutra, and, I believe, chiropractic treatment. They show the characters being drawn almost against their will into fearsome intimacy.
One of the galas Friday starred George Clooney in "Michael Clayton," a polished, sinister, smart thriller like the kind Michael Douglas used to make. Clayton is the fixer for a law firm, which means, he does what is necessary to set things right. But what if things are really wrong, and a partner in the firm has uncovered alarming information about a client, and the firm wonders if it can trust its fixer? I should not say more, except that when I see Clooney in a film like this, I wish he had never heard the word "Ocean's."
Another film I need not describe, because my actual review will appear in Friday's paper, is "The Brave One," Jodie Foster's new vigilante thriller. But it generated one of those ineluctable festival taxicab conversations.
Passenger One: "Look! On the sidewalk! It's Jodie Foster!"
Passenger Two: "No it isn't, it's just a woman who works at the hotel who looks a lot like her."
One: "Any other day of the year you might be right."
Two: "Why not today?"
One: "Because if Jodie Foster has a film in the Toronto festival, and she's coming out of the Toronto Four Seasons, it's Jodie Foster and not a woman who works at the hotel who looks a lot like her."
Not a great example of conversational wit, to be sure, but I'll keep my ears open.