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September 2007
An Interview with Director Ang Lee

An Interview with Director Ang Lee

By Brad Balfour

September 21, 2007

Ang Lee Expresses Lust with Little Caution

Sexually provocative and fraught with violence, Ang Lee’s "Lust, Caution/"Sie, Jie"] explores the story of a young woman who uses her sexuality to gain the trust of a high-powered Chinese official who is collaborating with the ruthless Japanese occupiers during the 1940s.

Played by newcomer Tang Wei, young actress Wong Chia Chi has joined a theater troupe that becomes a resistance cell that decides to assassinate Mr. Yee (Tony Leung), a viscious enforcer for the Japanese government occupying Shanghai; the married Yee becomes the object of her seduction, but the question eventually emerges as to who is seducing who. As gets caught up in the affair she loses sight of her original mission with deadly results.

Taiwan-born Lee has become one of the world's greatest filmmakers, working comfortable with genre formats (as in the kung-fu inspired historical action film, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), American-based stories (the Academy Award-winning "Brokeback Mountain") and traditional Chinese-lanuage familial tales (such as "Eat Drink Man Woman"). Using a languid storytelling technique, his enfold as much as the reveal their characters through simple yet compelling stories.

Were you familiar with Eileen Chang's short story of the same name--it has been a classic since first published in the '40s?

Ang Lee: When I was developing this I was already quite a ways into finishing "Brokeback Mountain." I had known the material for years. At first I was shocked… this comes from a writer who is most revered and loved but this wasn’t like her other stories. It’s obscure; not many people [have read it] or even read about it. She took a female’s view of sexuality to examine the most macho war against the Japanese. That was pretty scary to me…. It was haunting material to me.

Asian icon Tony Leung [Leung Chiu Wai] is like the Cary Grant of Asia--it's quite a turn to have him play such an ugly mean character as top Japanese collaborator, Mr. Yee.

AL: Speaking of Cary Grant, I think the movie is the reverse side of "Notorious" [Alfred Hitchock's classic film starring Grant]. It’s challenging and very interesting. I had wanted to work with Tony for so long, so I’m very happy that at least I had a role that was in his age range, even though it was the opposite [of roles he usually does]. It’s a great honor for me to change direction at this part of his career.

Was there any hesitation in casting him?

AL: No. A great actor is a great actor. I’ve never seen anyone play a traitor so well in Chinese film history. He’s just a great actor. After a while, I said to him, “Look you’re such a great actor, if I don’t torture you, then I don’t do you justice.” He was a director’s dream. If you’ve seen the movie, it was something else from what he has been used to doing. I only allowed one shot where he does his old Tony-style, which is when she let's him go. I said, “Okay, it’s only one shot. Let’s have the old Tony back.”

How did you get Tony and Tang Wei on board with this much nudity in the film--most Chinese actors and films arerelatively prudish?

AL: I saw it as a process. How deep are we involved in the playing of those characters? How much are we willing to do for the ultimate performance, which in some ways is what the movie’s about. So it sort of came naturally…but still the first couple of days were rough. It was more torturous in a way for me and Tony than [it was] for her since this was her first movie. But then after a while we were in a zone. It’s like hell [but it is also] the ultimate state of acting.

How did you come to select Tang Wei for the role since this was her first film role (she had been a Miss Universe candidate and film student)?

AL: You know, I didn’t see anyone that was known who would fit the part. We got her over 10,000 actresses who tried out…. but Tang Wei struck me as somebody who was right for the part. I believed such a story could happen with her. She gave the best reading and she has a disposition that reminds me of my parents’ generation.

Did the success of "Brokeback Mountain" allow you more creative autonomy on "Lust, Caution?"

AL: I’ve always enjoyed creative freedom, even on "The Hulk." But I have to say, to make the movie this way is quite miraculous. It helped in a sense that this was a regime--the Wang Jingwei government--that would never have been allowed to be made into a movie, either by communist China or nationalist Taiwan. It’s China’s patriotism that’s the big challenge, but this still had happened.

Do you think you would have been able to pass the movie through with the NC-17 rating without resistance from the studio if you hadn’t had that success from "Brokeback?

AL: It’s hard to say. James [Schamus, producer of "Lust, Caution" and CEO of Focus Features] is always supportive of me. His old studio, [the production company] Good Machine, [the one] when [Jim and I] started,was kind of my backbone, since "The Ice Storm." I did two movies with this studio. So it’s like a family… it’s all very supportive. I think I’m very fortunate.

You had said that when you read this story you thought “I could never make this into a movie.” But you felt haunted by it and kept going back to it--and that also happened with "Brokeback Mountain."

AL: Yes the two were very similar and both were from short stories.

Why do you think that happened? Was it in part a frustration that at first read you didn’t see how you could make it a movie?

AL: It’s not making it into a movie that’s a challenge to me. Of course it’s difficult, but that never intimidated me. If it’s difficult then it’s more interesting to me, like "The Ice Storm." That was like “no way can you make that into a movie,” which is why no one picked it up [but me.] But if I see something there, I’ll find ways to make movies. What frightens me is the subject matter. What are you really dealing with? With filmmakers, we can make movies, we can develop stories and characters, that’s our craft. But what you’re really dealing with is touching a part of society and yourself, that it’s a dare to do it, and you dare yourself to do it. That’s the thrill.

How would you say that your film has been or will be received in China or Taiwan?

AL: I didn’t care how Americans like it or not when I decided [to make the film.] Because we… female sexuality is never talked about in our [Chinese] culture or history. We never know what women get from sex. Nothing. Zero. Even women themselves… And you’ve got our best writer, Eileen Chang, writing about it with the backdrop of something you don’t want to touch--the occupation and war against the Japanese. To me, as a Chinese, [this subject] is more frightful for me than portraying gay cowboys.

How has the film been received in China. How do people feel about the story now?

AL: The greater audience hasn’t seen it, but from the press, so far, it’s been tremendously positive.

It could open up a lot of healing.

AL: It hurts a lot to watch this movie. With our history, our upbringing, it really hurts. I think they’ll get a lot.

Your career has spanned a lot of genres. Is there any a common strain that particularly fascinates you about a project?

AL: Human relationships. In this one it’s a man/woman relationship that is the ultimate occupy/being occupied. It’s hard to say who’s doing what to who, because of the nature of the relationship. There’s the obvious sexual, but it still involves love, and against the backdrop of China being occupied. So it’s human relationship, something in a constant change.

And what did you think of Paul Verhoeven's "Black Book"--your film is going to get compared to it.

AL: I haven't seen the movie, but that's what I've heard too. I'll have to see it sometime.

LUST, CAUTION opens on September 28, 2007


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