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.