Lust, Caution

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Director: Ang Lee; Release date: 4 January

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; The Hulk; Brokeback Mountain: Taiwanese director Ang Lee isn't one for getting stuck in a rut. His new film is once again quite unlike anything he's done before.

Lust, Caution takes place in China during the Second World War, but the actual events of the war are a faint backdrop to a tangle of loyalties, obsessions and pretences among a small group of the westernised middle classes. It's a psychological thriller, powered by both beautiful taut direction and compelling performances.

It's also extremely sexually explicit, though this is integral to the unfolding of the plot. While the sex is jarring and at times unpleasant, it exposes the depths of the central relationship in ways you wouldn't otherwise get.

Wong Chia Chi is a young woman who's been abandoned by her family in Hong Kong as the Japanese are advancing across China. At college she gets drawn into an acting troupe putting on patriotic dramas to raise money for the resistance. But the group's leader wants to go further, and hatches a plan for the group to assassinate a key Japanese collaborator.

Her part is as sexual bait, using her acting skills to pose as a businessman's wife to get close to the collaborator's wife, and then seducing the collaborator. But the plan goes horribly wrong (in a marvellous scene that manages to be both gruesome and very funny) and she runs out on the group.

Three years later she is living in poverty in Shanghai when the group leader contacts her again. They are now part of the official resistance and they want her to go back into character for a second try at the collaborator. And that's where both the lust and the caution come in.

Much of the film is told in flashback, and a great part of its power comes from watching the child-like Wong Chia Chi transmute into the confident and stylish Mrs Mak. It's the actor's first film, but she is convincing throughout as she moves between characters.

Equally important are the energetic (at times exhausting) street scenes which do much to keep the pace of the film. Ang Lee has meticulously recreated wartime Shanghai, and the contrast between the faded opulence of the Western Concession and the wider, much poorer, Chinese city is expertly done.

The subtitling isn't, unfortunately. It's quite inconsistent, and at one point it has a resistance leader saying to Wong Chia Chi, "It's your show now. Any questions?" which has incongruous echoes of the British stiff upper lip. But then the film was primarily made for Chinese audiences, not Westerners, and is overall stronger for that.

The central story isn't entirely believable either, and there are some serious questions about its historical accuracy. Overall this is a film to admire rather than to like. But it's to Ang Lee's credit that he's gone for rigour and commitment rather than chasing box office appeal and it confirms his position as one of the most important directors working today.