Chan Kam Chuen, Focus Features
Tony Leung and Tang Wei star in Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution."
LUST, CAUTION — ** — Tang Wei, Tony Leung, Wang Lee-Hom; in Mandarin, with English subtitles; rated NC-17 (sex, violence, nudity, gore, profanity, slurs, vulgarity, brief drugs)

Given all the early furor about the film's NC-17 rating and its much-discussed sex scenes, "Lust, Caution" seems curiously sedate and unexciting.

It's as if all the prerelease talk raised our expectations about the material to such a degree that the film can't possibly live up — or perhaps down — to it.

Of course, with all that said, filmmaker Ang Lee's latest does contain the most graphic sexual material of any widely released film in recent memory. It goes considerably further in that regard than his similarly controversial gay-cowboy drama "Brokeback Mountain"; it certainly merits the NC-17 rating.

However, that's not reason enough to bother with this handsomely photographed but ho-hum World War II espionage tale, which is set in Japanese-occupied China. A group of patriotic students there is hoping to get close to Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), a Japanese collaborator and high-ranking intelligence officer, whom they hope to assassinate. But to do so, they'll have to be subtle and clever. So one of the students, Wang Chia-Chih (Tang Wei), pretends to be the wife of an importer/exporter and attempts to seduce the extremely guarded and suspicious Yee.

Lee's film is badly in need of an editor and not just to trim down the embarrassingly lengthy and unflattering sex scenes, which are neither erotic nor essential and test the inhibitions of newcomer Tang and veteran Leung, who can't really make us care much about these characters or what happens to them.

The 2 1/2-hour movie also features several seemingly endless sequences in which four female characters play mahjong. While that makes it possible for us to nearly grasp the rules of the game, it doesn't make for enthralling cinema.

"Lust, Caution" is rated NC-17 for scenes featuring simulated sex and other sexual contact (including violent sex), some strong violence (shootings and a gruesome stabbing), full female and brief male nudity, some graphic gore, some strong sexual language (profanity and other suggestive talk), slurs based on nationality and race, and brief drug content (poison capsules). Running time: 157 minutes.

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