The key to this film is patience. It unfolds itself slowly, taking its time and allowing the story to be buoyed by the emotions that have been built up underneath it. Part spy thriller, part erotic drama, and part tragic love story, this is a beautiful and thoroughly engaging film, a subtle masterpiece.
It takes place in Japanese occupied Hong Kong during World War II. A young student (Wei Tang), known as Wang Jiazhi to her friends and later as Mrs. Mak, joins a handful of other students in an effort to undercut the Japanese hold on Hong Kong by going after Chinese collaborators. Posing as Mrs. Mak, the wife of a successful importer-exporter, she’s able to befriend Mrs. Yee (Joan Chen), the wife of their target (Tony Leung). It becomes apparent quickly that Mr. Yee is attracted to his wife’s new friend and as he drifts closer to her, so too does he drift closer to danger. One day, without warning, the Yees depart, and something brutal and tragic happens, causing Wang/Mak to flee. Three years later, her old friends catch up with her. They’re now part of a larger, better organized resistance group which they bring her into. Soon Wang/Mak is reuinted with the Yees and staying as a guest in their house. Soon after that she becomes Mr. Yee’s mistress.
The film has been rated NC-17 for the graphic nature of its sex scenes, but these scenes are not gratuitous. In the long build up to their first encounter, we see Mr. Yee only at a distance, far removed and mysterious. It is during their sexual encounters that we begin to get an idea of Yee’s real character, and sense the ways in which both characters are letting their guards down and becoming more invested in the relationship than either can afford to be. This isn't sex for sex's sake; it's to show us how these two people are connecting in spite of themselves and their desire to remain unnatached to each other.
This is a game of cat-and-mouse, and we're never quite sure who is playing which part. She is spying on him, but there’s a suggestion that he might suspect her and has already turned the tables, most effectively conveyed in a scene where he fondles her in the back of a car while telling her about the resistance cell that was broken up that afternoon, which is his excuse for being late. Earlier in the film she invites him into her house. He resists, which saves his life. Did he suspect her that early, and is that the reason for his sudden departure? We don't find out. Later we're forced to ask ourselves if he really suspected her at all, or if he just buried his suspicions under his feelings for her. Mahjong is used as a metaphor for the larger game that is being played. “I always lose,” Wang/Mak tells Mr. Yee, “except when I play with you.”
This is a wonderful film, beautifully photographed, well-acted, and featuring a haunting score by Alexandre Desplat, who was nominated last year for scoring The Queen and will hopefully be recognized again this year. Ang Lee proves himself once again to be a masterful, powerful storyteller. He’s not a director who relies on a lot of flash; instead he carefully crafts quiet images that stay with you. The final shot of the film tells you everything you need to know: these people are shadows, always playing some version of themselves – to be themselves is the most dangerous thing they can do.