In this powerful thriller set in 1940s Shanghai, Academy Award director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) brings a seductive espionage tale to the silver screen. The screenplay is based on the short story by respected Chinese author Eileen Chang. The backdrop of this narrative is World War II-era China, depicting a political movement led by young theatrical students against their oppressors.
During this time in history, China was occupied by the Japanese. The film focuses on the city of Shanghai where a cruel and sadistic Chinese political figurehead named Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chin-Wai) is in command of security. His position is appointed by the Japanese to suppress any uprisings. He is a collaborator and puppet to his people, and his reward is wealth and power. Tony Leung, Asian cinema icon for two decades and who amazed the world of film in such movies as 2046 and Infernal Affairs, performs masterfully in his character. His versatility as an actor is nothing short of great. His character defines a man who does not trust anyone and will not allow those outside of his personal entourage to get close to him.
The story begins in 1938 China as the shy Chia Chi (Tang Wei), a freshman at university, meets fellow student Kuang Yu Min (Wang Leehom). Kuang begins a drama society based on idealizing patriotism, and he convinces Chia to be his leading lady in his theater troupe. This stage performance is a cover-up to carry out a radical and ambitious plan to assassinate the cruel Japanese collaborator, Mr. Yee. Each student has a part to play; Wong will be Mrs. Mak, a woman of sophistication who will befriend Yee Tai Tai (Joan Chen) who is Mr. Yee's wife, and will eventually lure and seduce Mr. Yee, in order to gain his confidence. Wong transforms herself and the scenario proceeds as scripted until unexpected problems occur and she has to flee.
At that point, the story returns to Shanghai in 1941, with the Japanese occupation terrorizing the city, and Wong's return from Hong Kong. Kuang, now a member of the Chinese resistance, re-enters into her life. He enlists Wong into his organization as Mrs. Mak in a revival of the plot to kill Mr. Yee. As she reprises her early role, her real job is to get close to this government puppet. The more the affair between her and Mr. Yee progresses sexually, the harder her mission becomes.
Tang Wei is a beautiful and talented young actress who has never been on the big screen before. She carries every scene like a professional. She undergoes a series of chameleon-like changes as she progresses from innocence to portraying Mrs. Mak. Her performance was bold and daring.
I spoke with Tang Wei through an interpreter at a Q&A and ask her how physically difficult it was to work on this film and with Ang Lee, and she explained that it was "very cold where we shot and I think I am afraid of the cold; I get sick. But during the shoot, I was so surprised; I didn't get sick." She added, "Ang did get sick during the shooting, but never stopped, never rested. When we finished work every day, we would rest. But he never did. I could always feel what he was thinking about, just as he could always feel what I was thinking about." Tang Wei admitted to me she is a soccer player and is quite physical, but the film schedule tired her, and she ended up working half day schedules on the final days of shooting.
Like most Chinese dramas, the story unfolds at a leisurely pace, but the visuals and superb acting assisted the development by mesmerizing the audience, a product of Ang Lee's directing talents.
This period piece narrative is more controversial in the eyes of the Chinese film industry than in the Western world because of the sexual restrictions levied in China. That's why this film has an MPAA rating of NC-17 due to explicit sexuality. In my opinion, this fine film has the feel of The Black Book and the mystique of Casablanca. The costumes and hairstyles are magnificent, and the characters support each other very well.
I wonder if the American audience will accept Ang Lee's film, because it's not a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I found this movie to be quite profound and I highly recommend it.
Director: Ang Lee
Running time: 2 hours 38 minutes
Release date: September 28, 2007 (limited)
Genre: Thriller and Adaptation
Distributor: Focus Features
MPAA Rating: NC-17