I love Ang Lee, but I would never try to sell his movies on the power of their lush, romantic imagery; unlike the work of his Taiwanese contemporaries, Hou Hsiao-hsien and the recently deceased Edward Yang (and I’m going off the judgement calls of my peers on the latter, since I’ve only seen Yi Yi), there’s very little lyricism in Lee’s films. Though his compositions are unfailingly well-considered and occasionally breathtaking for the natural beauty they capture, it’s the relation of the characters to their environment that fascinates Lee. Think of the protracted winter hibernation of the young Bushwhackers in Ride with the Devil (his best film to date), where the boys’ frozen-earth hovel, hastily carved into the side of a hill, houses Jack Bull Chiles’s chilly, bluntly entitled courtship of the just-widowed Sue Lee Shelly. It’s a dank, depressing abode, and it foreshadows nothing good for the future of this abrupt romance.
This kind of novelistic texture is rare in movies today; most filmmakers and screenwriters are so concerned with achieving a tidiness of theme that digression is anathema – particularly if it can’t be explicitly tethered to an essential element or idea in the script. And this even applies to Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, which, despite its 134 minute run time, could’ve done with a little more sprawl. It’s a great film, but there’s no mystery to it.
Perhaps Lee will allow himself to get lost in his latest picture, Lust, Caution – though, for now, the only enigmatic thing about it is Focus Feature’s decision to sell it as an enthralling piece of pure cinema. If this were attainable solely through the accumulation of glamorous actors, exacting period detail and melodramatic orchestral music, then Wong Kar-Wai would be out of business. But it’s not that easy, and, besides, these are not the kinds of films Lee makes – which renders this trailer curiously ineffective. I’ve watched it three times now, and there’s not a single memorable shot aside from a sweaty female backside and a come-hither exhale from Tony Leung (thus proving once again that you need only frame Leung in close-up with a lit cigarette to capture movie magic). And, yeah, that Tang Wei is awfully pretty (though distressingly vacant in a few shots).
I’m over-analyzing, but it’s only because Lee’s film would probably be better served by a trailer with actual snippets of dialogue. Of course, this would entail subtitling, which would require American audiences to read, and this is a long, long way from wuxia. And now that I’ve talked the trailer down, you’re going to love it!
Update: Er, never mind. Focus Features has cease-and-desisted this from the Wild, Wild Web for the time being.