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An epic of espionage, eroticism

Tang Wei (left) and Tony Leung Chiu Wai star in 'Lust, Caution,' Ang Lee's film about Japanese-occupied Shanghai. Tang Wei (left) and Tony Leung Chiu Wai star in "Lust, Caution," Ang Lee's film about Japanese-occupied Shanghai. (chan kam chuen/focus features)

"Lust, Caution" is a disappointment coming from director Ang Lee, but it's a watchable one, and it rattles around in your head for a long time after you've seen it, as much for what it does right as for where it goes wrong.

The director of "Brokeback Mountain" and "The Ice Storm" has gone back to his native China, adapting a story by the late Eileen Chang that's a small, cruel marvel of observation. Working with his longtime producing-screenwriting partner James Schamus (here co-writing the script with Wang Hui Ling), Lee has expanded Chang's tale into an epic. Ironically, they've stretched the material until the nuances fall through the holes.

The bulk of the film is set in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation of World War II. We meet a certain Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai of "2046" and countless other movies), who runs the local secret police, torturing resistance members for information then serving them up to the Japanese.

His bitchy, elegant wife (Joan Chen) spends her days shopping and playing mah-jongg with her friends, and only slowly do we understand that one of these friends, the young Mrs. Mai (Tang Wei), is Yee's lover. More slowly still do we realize she's plotting his assassination.

In her story, Chang tossed off the heroine's background in a few acerbic pages: a college drama troupe in Hong Kong, students playing at being freedom fighters, a mission in which a girl named Wang Chia-chih pretends to be Mrs. Mai, a businessman's wife with eyes for Yee. He's intrigued but called to Shanghai too soon, and the plot collapses from inertia and amateurism.

All this is preparatory to the two becoming reacquainted in Shanghai three years later, but "Lust, Caution" spends a good hour in Hong Kong, watching Wang metamorphose from naïve girl to tougher player. (The director also throws in a grindingly ugly murder scene, just to let us know he's serious.)

In Shanghai, the affair between Chia-chih and Yee takes off and the film becomes about the struggle between duty and blissful sexual ravishment. The bedroom scenes are as explicit as anything I've seen in a mainstream movie (let alone a period film set in China), and the heroine progresses from shock to willing participation, knowing she's slipping down the slope to hell.

Yee has his kinks - Leung plays him as a sad, intelligent brute - but the girl is frightened to discover she enjoys them. The question becomes who she wants to rescue her from whom: her coconspirators from Yee or the other way around? Is she an actress playing a seductress or vice versa?

"Lust, Caution" lives up to its title in ways that work against it, alternating truly powerful eroticism with overlong sequences of emotional repression. It would make an interesting double bill with Paul Verhoeven's recent "Black Book," another World War II-set story about a spy in the house of love, but the comparison doesn't favor Lee's film, which is tasteful to a fault. At what point does subtlety become inert? By my watch, about 90 minutes into this 2 1/2-hour saga.

In her first film, Tang Wei gives a physically brave performance and a ripely emotional one, but she misses the shallowness at the core of the role - her Wang Chia-chih is a flawed romantic heroine rather than a flawed woman, and it throws the film's final scenes out of whack.

I suspect that "Lust, Caution" may speak more eloquently to Asian audiences, mindful of World War II history as they and their parents lived it and aware of the bind Wang finds herself in, between fascism on one hand and an illusory freedom on the other. (A local resistance contact, played by Tou Chung Hua, has the glare of a future Maoist zealot.)

Whatever has been lost in translation, Western audiences can take solace in Chang's original story (and her other writings), and in the movie's lush re-creation of a morally compromised past. Lee and Schamus drop a few classic-film clues to help us find our way: movie-theater shots of Cary Grant in "Penny Serenade"; Ingrid Bergman in "Intermezzo"; a poster for Hitchcock's "Suspicion." Ah, got it: Grant, Bergman, Hitchcock - this is Ang Lee's "Notorious." Unfortunately, it's just not notorious enough.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/ movies/blog.

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Lust, Caution

Directed by: Ang Lee

Written by: James Schamus and Wang Hui Ling, based on a story by Eileen Chang

Starring: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Tang Wei, Joan Chen, Wang Leehom

At: Kendall Square, Cambridge

Running time: 157 minutes

Rated: NC-17 (explicit sexuality, violence)

In Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Japanese, and English, with subtitles

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