Following the critically acclaimed 'Brokeback Mountain', Taiwanese director Ang Lee returns with another complex and character driven story of romance, drama and tragedy.

However, though beautifully shot, 'Lust, Caution' is a slow moving and disappointing work, unaided by a bum-numbing 157- minute duration.

Adapted from Eileen Chang's 1979 novella, Lee's controversial movie spans from 1938 to 1942, and is set in a World War Two-era Shanghai which is occupied by the Japanese.

The story centres on 'Mrs Mak' (Wei Tang), a beautiful, sophisticated, young Chinese woman who is not all she seems. A spy for a resistance group, she is about to complete her assassination mission from a Shanghai café when we are first introduced to her.

Reminiscing to herself on how she came to be caught up in this dangerous world of emotional intrigue and espionage, the story flashes back four years, revealing 'Mrs Mak's real identity - that of Wong Chia Chi, a shy Chinese student who has been left behind by her father.

Entering university in Hong Kong, she becomes involved with a theatre group led by the idealistic Kuang Yu Min (Lee-Hom Wang), himself intent on performing patriotic plays with a view to strengthening resistance amongst the city's people.

With his plays a success, and Wong his leading lady, Kuang stumbles upon an opportunity to really underline his patriotism by carrying out an ambitious plan to assassinate a high-ranking Japanese collaborator, Mr Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai).

Utilising his group's acting abilities, Kuang assigns each of his naïve but eager charges a role in the assassination attempt with Wong, driven by a love for Kuang, agreeing to play the seductress who will attempt to lure Mr Yee to his death.

As events unfold however, Wong's seduction of Yee eventually leads her to Shanghai and deeper into the world of espionage as her act of loving Yee gradually develops into something beyond theatre and real feelings for him begin to threaten her mission.

Told almost entirely in Mandarin, 'Lust, Caution' has been the subject of much controversy for its intense and graphic sex scenes.

Though Lee may argue that the scenes serve to highlight the 'lust' of the title, in truth they seem like an attempt to substitute character development. Furthermore their length and explicit nature, combined with a violent rape scene, are unnecessary.

The film's billing is also deceiving; its charge as an 'espionage thriller' corrupted by its sluggish storyline. Obviously, some elements of the spy story are apparent, however at no time does the plot lead to that 'will they/won't they get caught?' moment so integral to the genre.

A labelling as a love story may be more fitting, however this fails to hide the fact the movie's plot is far too drawn-out and lacking in any real punch.

The cynical may argue that the intense sex scenes were merely injected to prevent audiences from drifting off midway through the film's two-hour and 37-minute duration.

That aside, Lee knows exactly how to frame a scene and, visually, 'Lust, Caution' looks nothing short of stunning, with the film often emanating a 1940s film noir quality.

The two leads, Tony Leung and Wei Tang, are also sensational with Tang's performance all the more thrilling given that this is her motion picture debut.

If 'Lust, Caution' is to figure in any way during the forthcoming Oscar nominations, then it is Tang who could possibly be considered in the Best Actress category.

However, despite her fine performance and Lee's direction, 'Lust, Caution' remains a major disappointment - certainly in the wake of the director's last work.

When the great director's canon of work is reflected upon, this dull, drawn-out and depressingly poor movie will not be one he'll be fondly remembered for.

Steve Cummins