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Lust, Caution, rated the rare "NC-17," shows its high-mindedness by keeping us waiting an hour and a half for the hot stuff (borderline hardcore action, laced with S&M, the doll-faced newcomer Tang Wei as an unprotesting sex toy), and another hour and ten minutes still to go. What we wait through, or wade through, is a stagnant spy drama about a resistance cell formed of zealous theater students in Second World War-time Shanghai, plotting the assassination of a "cautious" (but lustful) collaborator with the occupying Japanese. Director Ang Lee, straight off Brokeback Mountain, has reportedly cut the film by some fifty minutes for the more puritanical Chinese market, while, in his own assessment, perfectly preserving the spirit of the thing. Inasmuch as there are scarcely fifty minutes of hot stuff, scarcely even five, we must suppose he has cut through some of the stagnancy as well. (And maybe, more regrettably, the very messily violent knife murder, as difficult and clumsy a killing as that of the gum-chewing KGB man in Hitchcock's Torn Curtain.) Frankly, it might have been preferable to see the shorter version over here. The entire course of the plot, the height or depth of passion it strives for, can be taken as a kind of tribute to the magnetism of Tony Leung, even in the role of a sadistic quisling. But although you can see at the end of it where it wanted to get to, you cannot see, from all that came before, how it ever expected to get there.

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