Warning, spoilers. Don't read this if you want to see the film. Better don't read the subtitles, like opera, this film is so much better if you have no idea with what is being said.
Ang Lee is a misogynist fatalist. Since women are, I will be the first to admit, imperfect, and because many lives end in painful futility, there is nothing wrong with this as an artistic starting point. Eat, Drink, Man, Woman and Brokeback Mountain were both heart rending and psychologiclaly penetrating. I think that Lust, Caution wants to be a new Last Tango in Paris. Except it isn't.
Let's start with the sex scenes. Yes, you can see the lead's private parts, yes you can see the public hair of the actress. Yes, they engage in light bondage, various sex positions. But like a high restaurant with bad food, there is dollops of sex on the plate, and not enough of anything else to make these meaningful. A lot of Ang Lee's absurdism comes out of a kind of Woman in the Dunes view of the geography of human beings and the things they create as ways of filing emptiness. In the end that is all the main character, played by the brilliantly controlled young actress Tang Wei (汤唯), has left.
It is interesting that one woman has alleged that true events inspired the original story, and that the failure of the mission was a gun jamming. This is the reverse of the accusations of The English Patient which make the hero seem better than he was, not worse.
But these are clutter compared to the real defect of the film: it's ambition is cut through the ice of how sexual intercourse leads to attachment so strong that it will overwhelm good sense. In doesn't do this. As far as anything is concerned, the film is about fucking, and the end, the regret we see is no more than losing your favorite coffee shop to a mall.
There is one moment where Wong Chia Chi, Tang Wei's character admits the corrosion that being a concubine for country means. It is one of only two true moments in the film, the other being the stabbing scene that ends the first half of the film. But there isn't enough of it. We have to see, and we don't, how this transfigures her. We don't get that, and thus the sex scenes are, well well filmed soft core pornography with a very pretty pair of leads.
I know something, I think, about being a concubine for a higher goal. It's not like the film. Instead, the film is about artists selling out for their art, and that's a different kind of concubinage. While people often say that art for commerce is like prostitution, it isn't. It's easy to keep the two apart, because nothing invades your body chemistry in doing illustrations and logo work. Sex, even virtual sex, is different.
That's the exploration this film needs, and does not get. Why does the director fall in love with danger and not with the actress? Why do they all fall in love with failure rather than success? The plot isn't: the first get lucky to be watched by the resistance, and then unlucky to be watched by the collaborationist government. The whole plot could have been filmed in two sequences lasting a few minutes. It's the opposite of Brokeback Mountain where "this thing that comes over us" is a thing, we feel it and understand it. But then Ang Lee doesn't hate men the way he hates women.
Which isn't, in itself, unartistic. A great deal of great art has been made by men who hate women, and admired by women who hate themselves. What's wrong with it here is that the self-loathing of Wong Chia Chi is not made into what it is: an emptiness of the actress. She is bought for a quail egg gem, and is, therefore, uninteresting. The collaborator is merely surviving and taking his pleasure where he can get it. He is also uninterseting. The young director, and the other young actress, are the interesting characters. They have a joy of life, and a passion, that everyone else lacks. A more interesting picture waited watching them tangle and fight and do something, as opposed hang around in nice costumes and get fucked.
It is a delicious bon bon indeed. This is the most gorgeous film imaginable, and so well done it is painful to stare at. But it breaks its own inner rules about what we see and don't, which robs it of ambiguity. What I mean by this is simple. We follow the main characters, and do not see Yee's inner life, or work, until the film maker wants to deliver the closer. The questions that need answering then could have been shown, but were not.
So robbed of its depth, plot robbed of its meaning, all we have left is Ang Lee's staring up at the sky and wondering about the relationships between people and what they mean. He's still in search of the animal. The one who points its four legs at the stars. But here he had nothing to say, except how beautiful all the ugliness can be.