Lust, Caution & r & & r & by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & f you viewed Brokeback Mountain, director Ang Lee's coming out party for the modern cowboy, as a mile-marker on America's quickening road trip to the bowels of hell, Lee's new film, Lust, Caution, should be more than enough evidence to declare him the driver. The film's been rated NC-17 after all, and Spokane -- America's favorite quasi-Midwestern test market -- got one of only a dozen or so copies destined for the States. Satan, it seems, is using our town as a staging area for the de-moral-ing of America.

The strange thing about Lust, Caution, though, is that it's not about what you think it's about. No, unlike Showgirls -- the only other film ever given the key to America's multiplexes despite an NC-17 rating -- Lust, Caution isn't primarily about sex. It's mostly about loyalty.

Set during World War II in Japanese-occupied China, the film follows Wang Jiazhi (Wei Tang), a young college student effectively orphaned when the invasion cuts off her ties to England and to her father. Jiazhi immediately falls in with a group of student agitators, led by a guy named Kuang Yu Min (a stoic Lee-Horn Wang). Yu Min tells her he's starting a theater company to supply the war effort with saccharine patriotism. Jiazhi --with zero acting experience -- wins the lead role. The play is a success but doesn't feel like enough.

Jiazhi is soon summoned back to the theater where a new masquerade is hatched. Yu Min bumped into a childhood friend with connections to Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), an important Chinese figure in the Japanese-controlled government. Yu Min has a plan to kill him. Jiazhi joins up, we sense, because she has nothing better to do.

After a few attempts to catch Yee in public fail, it becomes clear that the group will never get close enough to the man under normal circumstances. The only hope, they think, is if Jiazhi, who has infiltrated Yee's wife's social circle and gained his confidence to a degree, should try to seduce him.

Though similar in form to any number of seduce-and-assassinate plotlines, Lust, Caution's unhurried script and Lee's steady lens take great pains to showcase the na & iuml;ve humanity that underpins the film's three main scenes, a grisly murder and two equally graphic depictions of sex.

These are kids when the film begins, compelled because of war and duty to become killers. The road is rocky. When their initial contact to Yee gets wise of their plan, he confronts them, leading to one of the feeblest murders ever committed to film.

Jiazhi's journey then becomes a solitary one, continuing after Yee as much because of inertia as a sense of purpose. The relationship that develops over three years is as grisly as the murder. Their first liaison ends in rape; subsequent encounters involve rough, angry, painful sex; outside the bedroom he's forceful and distant and inconsiderate. Still, Jiazhi begins to develop a loyalty for the man because, we suspect, he's the only person in her life who wants her for who she is, not what she's capable of accomplishing. A hopelessly sad commentary on the place of women within that society and the way war makes people view even their allies as objects to be exploited, Lust, Caution is a lovely, sickening film. (Rated NC-17)

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