An Interview With Ang LeePosted on: 04 January 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves
Oscar winning director Ang Lee talks about his new film Lust, Caution.
Oscar winning director Ang Lee was haunted by Eileen Chang's novella Lust, Caution for years.
Set to the epic backdrop of the Japanese occupation of China, the story, which explores patriotism and passion, both shocked and mesmerised him - to the point where he had to adapt it for the screen.
"I knew about this short story for years. I was shocked when I read it because I'd never seen a portrayal of female sexuality like that in Chinese literature," he explains.
"You have our most beloved woman writer put that against the backdrop of the most glorious war we have had, the most patriotic in a very patriotic society, and it was shocking to me. I was in total denial, it was like 'this story has nothing to do with me,' but it kept coming back to haunt me and I had to make it."
Lee cast one of Asia's most charismatic leading men, Tony Leung, in the role of the sinister, brutal Mr Yee, a collaborator who is the sworn enemy of the resistance. Newcomer Tang Wei plays the patriotic student Wong Chai Chi who is drawn into a plot to assassinate Yee - but to get close to him she has to seduce him.
Lust, Caution, which won the prestigious Golden Lion when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, is a story of betrayal and courage and the conflicting power of loyalty and lust. The film features some explicit sex scenes that the director admits were harrowing to film.
Lee, 53, who was born in Taiwan, won the Academy Award for Best Director for Brokeback Mountain. His other films include The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, Ride With The Devil, Hulk and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Why did you choose this book to adapt?
I knew about this short story for years. I was shocked when I read it because I'd never seen a portrayal of female sexuality like that in Chinese literature. You have our most beloved woman writer put that against the backdrop of the most glorious war we have had, the most patriotic in a very patriotic society, and it was shocking to me. I was in total denial, it was like 'this story has nothing to do with me,' but it kept coming back to haunt me and I had to make it.
Did you have an option on the book for a long time?
No. A few directors tried to do that but under previous regimes it was not allowed to be filmed. So I was lucky, maybe it was because of the Academy Award or something that it opened up for me. The other thing that really interested me was the journey that Wong Chia (Tang Wei), the central character, is going through. I could very much identify with that - that only through pretending, playing a part, that you actually connect with your other self which is more truthful. So that was another haunting element for me. There were many other things, but both those elements, fear and identity, made it irresistible for me.
The theme of duality runs throughout your work. What brings you back to that?
It's always there. I guess maybe it was the way I was brought up, I think from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, that was a change of direction from horizontal to vertical, there was the obvious self and the hidden self, the altar ego and your true self - and that fascinates me. I've shown a lot in my movies already and if want bring something new and still feel like a virgin each time - and I have to, to take that adventure and be honest with people - then I have to dig deeper to something unknown.
So you are digging into different parts of yourself with each film?
Into the unknown, the unconsciousness, to explore guilt, hidden pleasures, childishness, a sense of danger, fear, anger and romance - and romance is something I never exercise in real life. (laughs). I did two movies back to back about different ways to feel what love is. I guess since I started making movies professionally this is my life and it's the only way to live my life and learn about the world and myself and to communicate. So what you see in the movie is what, present day, matters to me the most, what my struggles are.
The sex scenes are very graphic. How did you approach them?
It was planned not in terms of action but the positions I had in mind. I joked with a journalist the other day 'what I do in the movies is what I can't do in life..' (laughs). The truth is that they are a dramatic need. I know I couldn't do pornography, that's for sure. It was extremely painful for me to go through that with actors that trust me so much. I've planted the characters in them and for those moments they are the characters, not themselves, they are the alter egos. So to carry them into hell and to try to bring them back I need to believe in something and all we can hang on to is what we are mad about and that's drama - how far performing goes.
This is the ultimate performance and I have to contort their bodies, the body language has to speak for the movie otherwise I couldn't go on, the rest of the story doesn't exist. So it starts from there and the execution, the nuances is something that happens on set. And once I have those thoughts I come up with a shot list and then we light it and then to keep the flexible and very private it's just the cameraman, a focus puller and myself - and I was doing hair, make up and continuity, everything. We worked for about 11, 12 days on a closed set.
How difficult was it for those actors to do those scenes?
It's not so hard for her but when you carry a strong emotion to that it's difficult, it almost drove insane in the last scene. You can see she was almost hysterical in the last scene because of how much she was committed to it. This is her first movie and I was hoping she would think 'well, that's movie making!' (laughs). But she just approached it naturally and that's the best acting. I think that at that time morality and what was happening was out of her mind, somehow. Tony (Leung) is an experienced actor and when he sees where the camera is placed he knows the deal and it's about stripping down and how much he is willing to throw away the old Tony and how much he wants to dive in, that's the test. I think in some ways it was more difficult for him than it was for her. But actually I think it was most difficult for me. I sort of tore myself apart doing those scenes - on a human level, on a dramatic level and a self-awareness level. It was all very painful. I wish I could have enjoyed those scenes, but I didn't.
Do you think a more renowned actor would have had difficulty with those scenes?
You hardly have anybody more renowned in Asia than Tony and then you have a newcomer. I think it doesn't really matter, when they do something they have never done it's all fresh for them, it's different layers of difficulty. But as I said, I think it was more difficult for Tony because he is renowned and he has a lot of skills and knowledge about filmmaking and he has to be willing to put that aside and be fresh like a baby.
How did you come to cast a newcomer in such a pivotal role?
I sort of had to. I've seen known actors but after a while I decided to go with a newcomer.
Were there any actors put off by those scenes?
No, when I test them they didn't know what it was. They knew me and Eileen Chang is one of the most revered writers in the modern history of China. It wasn't until after they were about to be cast that I told them about those scenes. Tang Wei we got from testing more than 10,000 actresses. It was a big job. It took months. I didn't see individuals but I saw a lot of the tapes. It took a long time.
Were you worried about the ratings that the film would get in certain territories, like the USA?
Sure but at some point you have to ask yourself what is more important. I think the existence of the movie is more important. We didn't have discussions with the ratings people about it and we certainly are aware that we are way past what you usually see with R. so we are mentally prepared. We do feel proud that we insisted on what it is, both as a director and a producer, James (Schamus) who supported me. NC 17 is a respectable rating and it shouldn't be equated as pornography.
How do you think it will be received in China?
I think it will be a great shock. It's not only the sex scenes but the subject matter too. So I anticipate a big impact in the Chinese language society and maybe in Asia in general.
Do you hope that it breaks down taboos there?
Yes, the taboo is examining our patriotism, which is as serious, if not more, than making a film about gay cowboys is for the Americans. It's about women's sexual pleasure, patriotism; it's like even scarier. It will be quite painful to watch because it will recall many, many things - what we are about as a group, as individuals. This is a very brave piece of writing and I've tried to follow the book. I think the rating will be different in different parts of China. In Taiwan they are not going to touch it, they'll show the whole thing. There's no rating system (in mainland China) it has to be for a general audience so I would rather do it myself, re-edit the film, so the story makes sense. Maybe to some people's taste it will be a better (laughs).
With the sex scenes is there a political metaphor going on, too?
Yes, it's about the occupation, you can say that. And within the framework of the man woman relationship it's about being occupied and occupying - who is the occupier depends on which side you are looking at, so yes, there is a political message.
Night Porter was a film that also used sex to deal with some of those issues…
Well sex is an important part of our lives and we live in a framework of politics. I never felt that I was making a political movie but the political aspect is an important element in the material and not surprisingly, things haven't changed that much.
How can you coax your actors into going that deep into a role?
Unfortunately, it's no pain no gain. If you feel comfortable it's not enough, you have to keep asking questions and see where you are protecting yourself and chip it off until you have almost driven yourself mad. And I think it's important for artists to be brave because you expose yourself and that's your job. The second most important thing is to keep your sanity, without it you don't make anything, so that's our job.
You said earlier that winning the Oscar helped getting this film made.
Yes. I think when you have a success you should abuse it (laughs)
Has winning the Oscar changed the way you are perceived within the industry?
Yes, absolutely. But going back to China to make this movie and they are always very supportive and very interested in what I do anyway but the Oscar makes it even easier. The devotion, the dreams they share with me comes so much quicker. Like Shanghai Studio was a tough studio to make a deal with in the past and with Lust, Caution I said that I couldn't find a street that I needed and so they built two blocks. It was the biggest set I've ever seen - anything I wanted they did their best and they will go through fire for you. I think Oscar has something to do with it but there was something that led me to the Oscar and that also counts, too. I think if people see your intentions they respect what you are trying to do. They can see that I'm not trying to cash in on it but that I have earnest intentions.
How surprised were you when Crash won Best Picture when everybody else was expecting Brokeback Mountain to win?
It's not a total surprise because it came out and did very well and ours was a gay cowboy movie and there were so many gay jokes but still that year we won everything up to that point, so there was still expectation. The worst part was after I got off the stage with the Oscar they said 'don't go to the press room yet..' and they gave me a mark next to the curtain and said 'we want to show your reaction' and Jack Nicholson (who was presenting the Best Picture award) came up and he opened the envelope and that was the worst part and I was very suddenly aware of the cameras on me and he opened it and went 'ohhh!' and then he went 'Crash!' And then they showed my face and I had to recover. It was kind of funny thinking back and I wish them well, the whole team. But that moment was kind of awkward. I felt bad for our team but I'm happy for them.
I was reading that after Hulk you were thinking of retiring. Is that true?
I was just exhausted. I was fighting the studio to do it my way, I was fighting the convention of the comic book, cinema conventions, so there was a lot of aggravation and to me that is kind of the Hulk. But it was exhausting and physically it was quite punishing especially after Crouching Tiger. I did take time out and during that period I was very depressed and I didn't know what to do with my life and I figured I couldn't stop making movies there. I had to come back in the same way that when you fall off the horse you want to get back on again otherwise you never will. Also I had to face my children, I was 40 something and what kind of example do you set for your children? So I couldn't do it. And I thought about this short story (Brokeback Mountain) I read three years before that and it was like 'no way can anybody make that movie..' (laughs) so I picked that and I thought there was no way anybody would pay attention. I really enjoyed making The Hulk. I was very sincere and really enjoyed the process but it was the selling part of it, the big blockbuster they had to sell like Spiderman - that killed me. So I wanted to do a small movie, take it easy, and so actually Brokeback helped me recover from that slump. When I'm not working I don't know what to do with my life, I get very agitated.
More information can be found at: www.lustcaution.co.uk
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