Unsurprisingly, 'Casablanca' is a film coming up in discussions of Lust, Caution - and in terms of the quality of the cast, story and direction they are movies on equal terms. They both look at love and espionage during the period of the Second World War, and take place within cities of sin and intrigue. Taiwanese director Ang Lee's film is framed by a history which is absent from the ordinary formal education delivered in Europe and America- it's set towards the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War and in the context of the Chinese Civil War.
A Girl and a Gun favorite Tony Leung Chiu Wai heads up the sterling cast, playing against type as a high level Japanese collaborator - responsible for the torture and execution of resistance members amongst other things. Tony Leung's monstrous Mr. Yee is entirely human - completely aware of how dangerous his position is and accordingly scared, secretive and emotionally inaccessible.
Newcomer Wei Tang puts in a stellar performance as the equally lonely Wong Chia Chi, a student who has lost her mother and been abandoned by her father, and who agrees to take on the role of Mrs. Mak in order to seduce Mr. Yee to give the KMT/Chinese Nationalist Party resistance opportunity to assassinate him.
Mrs. Mak eventually moves into the Lee household (at the behest of Mrs. Lee - played by the outstanding Joan Chen) and begins an affair with Mr. Lee. The sex scenes are totally explicit but crucial to configuring Wong and Mr. Lee's relationship - they act as admission of vulnerability, tests/pledges of trust and as the lead characters only really intimate contact with anyone, in a context where they are both aware that talking to anyone about their lives could lead to their deaths. There is a key scene when Wong relates the reality of her relationship with Mr. Lee to her handler and he can't cope with her honesty - he actually gets up and walks out of the room.
The historical tragedies of the protagonists (not to mention the personal ones) are far bleaker than those of Rick and Ilsa - no one in Lust, Caution has the luxury of belonging to a winning side, since Japan surrenders in 1941 and Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT/Chinese Nationalist Party flees to Taiwan in 1949. The combination of an unfamiliar political landscape, subtitles, the more psychologically complex characterisation of the protagonists and the "strong sex" scenes is going to make this a far harder sell to mainstream English speaking audiences than Casablanca ever was. It's a film that deserves to be seen widely though, so that we can all be haunted by Ang Lee's looming South Quarry - there are so many amazing, essential scenes that it's hard to pick out favorites.