Ang Lee’s directorial career is notable as much for its eclecticism as for its great craft. Lee has explored Victorian manners (Sense and Sensibility), familial strife in ’70s America (The Ice Storm), the Civil War (Ride with the Devil), martial arts (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and even superheroes (The Hulk). Since landing the first Academy Award for Best Director to an Asian with Brokeback Mountain), which became a mainstream hit despite it’s controversial depiction of homosexuality in the American west, Lee chose to try his hand at the espionage thriller with Lust, Caution.
Set over the course of several years during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai during World War II, Lust, Caution follows a young student named Wong Chia Chi (newcomer Tang Wei) as she puts her natural acting gifts to the ultimate test. Recruited by members of the Chinese resistance, she uses her easy charisma to infiltrate the home of an instrumental Japanese collaborator Yee (Tony Leung) in order to set him up for eventual assassination. Over the course of luring him in with her charms, she begins a torrid affair with the man, and the line between the emotions she’s acting out and her real feelings for him become blurred.
Ang Lee recently sat down with us in New York to discuss this new film and how it fits into the framework of his distinguished oeuvre.
ComingSoon.net: What’s it like to take an icon like Tony Leung, who’s considered the Cary Grant of Asia, and put him in this very harsh role of the Japanese collaborator?
Ang Lee: Speaking of Cary Grant, I think the movie is the reverse side of “Notorious.” (laughs) It’s challenging and very interesting. I’d wanted to work with Tony for so long, and at least I have a role that he’s the right age range for, even if the role is the opposite of his heroic image. A great actor is a great actor. It’s a great honor for me to change his direction at this part of his career.
CS: Was there any hesitation in casting him?
Lee: No. Great actor is a great actor. I’ve never seen anybody play a traitor so well in our Chinese film history. After awhile I said to him, “look, you’re such a great actor, if I don’t torture you I don’t do you justice.” He was like, “*SHRUG*, yeah.” He’s like a director’s dream. In the movie he’s something else from what he used to be. I only allow one shot where he does his old Tony style, when she lets him go, looks in his eyes.
CS: Was there any reticence during the filming of the sex scenes between Leung and Tang?
Lee: I think if I tell them “look, before you get onboard let’s make it clear that I see it as a process on how deep we’re involved in the playing of those characters, how much we’re willing to do the ultimate performance,” which in some ways is what the movie is about. It sort of came naturally, each day I push a little bit in both acting and drama, and in the relationship with them as a person, as actors and director, and there will be a point like “why don’t we go all the way,” and they’re like “whatever you say.” Still, the first couple of days was rough. It was torturous, in a weird way, more for me and Tony than for her. After awhile we were in a zone. It’s like hell, but it’s the ultimate state of acting, where we all feel privileged to make the movie.
CS: How and why did you come to select Ms. Tang, since this is her first role?
Lee: In our industry I don’t see anyone that’s known that fits the part, in my opinion. We got her over 10,000 actresses trying out. I didn’t see all 10,000! There are assistant directors who do the casting, then the main assistant herself shoots more than 1000, then it gets down to me. Tang Wei strikes me as somebody who is right for the part. She gave the best reading, and she has a disposition that reminds me of our parent’s generation. Most importantly, I identify with the main character, the woman in the story who by pretending and playing actually touches the true self. I myself am the part, and I see her as the female version of me, that’s the feeling. It’s abstract, but it’s a feeling.
CS: Had you known the original short story by Eileen Chang for a long time?
Lee: I’d known the material for years. This comes from a writer who’s very revered and loved, but this one is unlike her other stories. It’s obscure, not many people read about it. She took female sexuality and used it to examine our most macho, holy war against the Japanese. That’s very scary to me, it was like “whoa”. (laughs) And then it just kept coming back. As I pointed out before I very much identify with the character myself, so it’s haunting material for me, for years.
CS: How did the success of “Brokeback Mountain” affect the level of autonomy and control you had over “Lust, Caution”?
Lee: I always enjoy creative freedom, even on “The Hulk.” (laughs) But to make the movie this way is quite miraculous. It helped in a sense that this was originally never allowed to be made into a movie, both by communist China and nationalist Taiwan. And this happened, and this challenged patriotism, and economically Shanghai still had great support. They built a street for me, I had to dress it but they built two blocks as I mapped out. A lot of manpower, devotion, top of the line. For example, my camera crew, other than Rodrigo Prieto the cinematographer, were all DPs themselves. His gaffer shot “Infernal Affairs.” Tang Wei would do anything. (laughs) So I think that “Brokeback” has an affect, but of course that’s an accumulation of my career that culminated in “Brokeback”.
CS: Do you think you would have been able to release this film with the NC-17 rating without resistance from the studio if you hadn’t had that success?
Lee: It’s hard to say, because James Shamus and the studio always supported me. They were always my backbone because they helped sell and produce the movie, because the sales is why I can have my creative freedom. I’ve done two movies with this studio so it’s like a family. Focus wouldn’t fire James because of the NC-17, because he would dare them if they dared to say anything, but of course they are very supportive of the movie. So I think I am very fortunate.
CS: Why do you think you are drawn to stories that are challenging to pull off?
Lee: It’s not making it into the movie that is a challenge to me. Of course it’s difficult, but that never intimidated me. If it’s difficult it’s more interesting to me, like “The Ice Storm.” There’s no way to make that into a movie, that’s why no one would pick it up. (laughs) But yeah, if I see something there I will find a way to make it into a movie. What frightens me is the subject matter, what are you really dealing with? We’re professional filmmakers, we can develop stories and characters, that’s kind of our craft, but what you’re really dealing with is to touch the part of society and yourself that you dare yourself to do it, that’s the thrill.
CS: And how would you say the story is being received in China as compared to America?
Lee: Mostly China, I didn’t care if the Americans like it or not. Because female sexuality is never talked about in culture and history. We never know what women get from sex. Nothing, zero. From literature, (laughs) even from women themselves. This, to me I’m Chinese and this is more frightful for me than portraying gay cowboys of America. The greater audience hasn’t seen it, but from the press so far it’s been tremendously positive. It hurts a lot to watch this movie from our history, that’s the truth. It really hurts. I think they get a lot because of the political decisions, they don’t have to read subtitles, the minority in the culture. They get a lot more. It’s a drama, it’s not “Crouching Tiger,” we don’t have a lot of action sequences.
CS: Your career has spanned a lot of genres. Is there any common strain throughout what you do?
Lee: Human relationships. In this one it’s a man-woman relationship, the ultimate being occupied. It’s hard to say who’s to who, which direction it goes. (laughs) The nature of relationships, most obviously sexual but also in love and the political backdrop of China being occupied. So it’s relationships, I think, human relationships. Something in a constant change. It’s very hard to grab something you can believe in ’cause things will change. That’s just life. Disillusion, again something you firmly believe, prejudice in this sense, behavior code, and when you face reality it’s something more complicated than what you’ve been taught.
Lust, Caution opens in limited release this Friday.