In the first minutes of Lust, Caution, we get one of those shots where the camera swish-pans quickly to the side to reveal a guy looking through binoculars; the effect, used in countless Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, is as if we were also looking through binoculars, spying. Then we get a shot of four women playing Mahjong and talking, talking, talking. The clacking of the tiles mixes with their chattering, and the subtitles flash across the screen on top of images of tiles. Are we supposed to be looking at the pictures on the tiles, and if so, did we miss anything important in the dialogue? Following that, a car rolls down the street. We cut to another shot of the car rolling down the street, this time entering a gate. Then the car parks. A man gets out and walks into a large house. That's roughly the first ten minutes of the film. It begs the question: what do these shots have to do with one another? What does any of this have to do with anything? What does it have to do with the art of cinema?

I got the impression, here and throughout Lust, Caution, that director Ang Lee just arbitrarily set up his shots without much consideration for what they meant. His only concern is the story, not the art behind it. In a crucial, early exchange between our two lead characters, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Mak (Tang Wei), Lee very simply cuts back and forth between them on the beats of dialogue. When one finishes speaking, he cuts to the other, who starts speaking. There's no mystery or rhythm, and no concern for reactions or pauses. I bring all this up only because Lee is widely considered one of the greatest filmmakers in the world, and he ought to be a good deal better than this. I suspect that, like many others throughout history, he mistrusts cinema as an art form in itself, and sees it only as an extension of literature and theater. He adds external elements to make his films seem important. In this case, the movie's length (nearly 160 minutes) and his story about the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in the late 1930s and early 1940s, carry a historical weight.

I won't be giving any plot points away by saying that Mrs. Mak is not really Mrs. Mak. She's Wang Jiazhi, a spy who started out performing subversive, patriotic plays in college, under the direction of fellow student Kuang Yumin (Wang Leehom). After some success on the stage, Kuang finds a way to help in real life, by getting close to Mr. Yee, a traitor in bed with the Japanese, and assassinating him. Mrs.Mak/Wang quickly attracts Mr. Yee's attention, but their amateur operation is exposed and shut down. Years later, Kuang approaches Mrs. Mak/Wang to start up the ruse once more, this time under professional rules and with quite a bit more at stake. She strikes up a physical romance with Mr. Yee, who first rapes her, then engages her in more traditional sex, albeit via many twisty positions (let's just say they add a few new pages to the Kama Sutra). Lee's film has infamously accepted its NC-17 rating for these realistic, raunchy sex scenes, which -- quite honestly -- have little to do with the rest of the staid, sober film. There were a myriad of other ways to establish the sensual love-hate relationship between the spy and the traitor.

The screenplay, by Lee's usual suspects James Schamus and Wang Hui-Ling (based on a story by Eileen Chang), starts uncertainly by flashing forward to a more exciting sequence from the middle of the film, a sequence in which Wang initiates the beginning of the sting operation; it's a lazy technique used often in Hollywood for films with weak beginnings, and in no other case does the film use flashbacks or flash-forwards. Sadly, the luminous Joan Chen is stuck in the underwritten role of Yee's wife, oblivious to the affair and rarely raising her head from the Mahjong table. And, at times Mrs. Mak/Wang and Kuang don't seem to have much drive. Why are they doing this? Kuang's motivation is explained through a line of dialogue (his parents wouldn't let him join the military), but Mrs. Mak/Wang's is less clear.

Yet, despite all these drawbacks, I found myself captivated at certain points -- especially after the midpoint -- caught up in the able performances of these two interesting characters. Mr. Leung is one of the great actors in all of Asia, having lent his considerable presence to such films as John Woo's Bullet in the Head (1990) and Hard-Boiled (1992), Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love (2001) -- and most of Wong's other films -- Alan Mak and Andrew Lau's Infernal Affairs (2002) and Zhang Yimou's Hero (2004). He has developed a kind of Eastwood-like hardness but with a small soul window to indicate his extraordinary passion. In one great sequence, he reacts to a bit of news only with his eyes and then his feet, and it's an astonishing bit of acting. As Mrs. Mak/Wang Tang Wei is a newcomer, and she relies on her youthful, pert beauty as well as a hidden pool of intelligence.

When these two characters are together, and as their relationship advances, the film comes alive. All this points to my working theory that Lee is far better at interior stories than he is with exteriors. His large-scale, outdoor films like Ride with the Devil, Hulk and the sorely overrated Brokeback Mountain have all failed on an artistic level, whereas The Wedding Banquet, Sense and Sensibility and-- perhaps -- The Ice Storm (which I regret I haven't yet seen) at least partly succeed because of their intimacy. He's like a theater director in reverse; when he projects to the back row he rings false, but in whispers he finds his voice. If only he could ignore the "Best Director" hype and focus, he could still contribute something worthwhile to the cinema.

For more on Lust, Caution, see James' TIFF review and audio interview with director Ang Lee.