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An espionage thriller set in WWII-era Shanghai, in which a young woman, Wang Jiazhi, gets swept up in a dangerous game of emotional intrigue with a powerful political figure, Mr. Yee.

After making the definitive—OK, the only—gay-cowboy romance in Hollywood history, what do you do next? With Lust, Caution (Focus Features), protean Taiwanese director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; The Hulk; Brokeback Mountain) does something that’s unexpected and truly daring. He takes a compact gem of a short story by Chinese writer Eileen Chang and spins it into a 158-minute saga of espionage, deceit, sexual humiliation, and something that could be perversely—but not untruthfully—called love.

The mere fact that a sex scene can raise questions this complex points up the boldness of Lee’s project in Lust, Caution. Most on-screen sex scenes could be replaced by a title card reading, “And then they had sex.” But when his two leads go at it, Lee doesn’t pan away discreetly to a lamp or show close-ups of their faces; he lets their savagely entangled bodies do the talking, and we (and they) emerge from the scene with a completely changed sense of who these characters are. Whether the NC-17-rated sex scenes are “real” or simulated has been the object of much speculation, but whatever Leung and Wei were up to on that closed set (where the 10 or so minutes of on-screen sex reportedly took more than 100 grueling hours to film), they’re doing something very real as actors.

In fact, this paradox—that an actor is an artist who tells the truth by lying—is central to the movie itself. Tang Wei, making her film debut, gives a superb and unsettling performance as a woman whose only source of power is her ability to transform herself into someone else. In one scene, Wong takes refuge in a movie theater, where she weeps her way through an Ingrid Bergman film. Her identification with the melodrama hints at the romantic naiveté that will be her downfall and also reminds us of the college propaganda play where she first discovered her calling as a performer (and brought the audience to its feet shouting, “China will not fail!”). Lust, Caution is both a cannily constructed spy thriller and a grim kind of love story, but it harbors no illusions about the transformative potential of either revolutionary violence or sexual passion. In the end, the movie suggests, both politics and love may be inseparable from the lies we tell ourselves about them.