There’s no lack of buzz around “Lust, Caution,” the latest provocation from Ang Lee. Though tepidly received by some Stateside reviewers, who found more caution than lust, it collected the Golden Lion in Venice (Lee’s second in three years following “Brokeback Mountain“). “Lust” marks not only Lee’s return to a Chinese-based milieu–with his trademark agility, he once again tackles a new genre, this time an erotic espionage thriller, with graphic sex scenes that won the film an NC-17 rating. No question, the film’s steamy grappling might be hard to distinguish from pornography. But it could be argued those scenes play a crucial dramatic role–Ang Lee calls them “the crux of the movie”–and expand the boundaries of what cinema is capable of capturing.
Adapted from a story by revered Chinese novelist Eileen Chang, “Lust” unfolds against the dangerous glamour of Japanese-occupied Shanghai during WWII. Reticent young Wang Jiazhi (first-timer Tang Wei) finds her calling as an actress when she joins a university theater troupe. Spearheaded by patriotic Kuang (Asian pop star Wang Leehom), the troupe hatches a naive plot to assassinate Mr. Yee (Hong Kong legend Tony Leung), an intelligence chief working for the Japanese. Wang, their star performer, will set him up for the kill by seducing him. Disguised as a wealthy merchant’s wife, she infiltrates Mr. Yee’s household, playing mahjong with his wife (Joan Chen, in a wicked cameo) and her idle friends, and eventually becomes his mistress. Wang is no match, though, for the feral, dapper Mr. Yee, whose daily routine includes torturing suspects. In a deadly game, Wang finds she can no longer distinguish between patriotic fervor and lust for an antagonist who, as she puts it, has wormed his way into her heart.
The premise of a resistance fighter falling for the enemy reprises a plot point of Paul Verhoeven‘s “Black Book.” “Lust” is also drenched in genre elements and Western noir. But through its fluid structure coupled with human revelations, it transcends genre to explore Ang Lee’s abiding theme of desire versus duty, the pull of the heart’s reasons against society’s demands. “Brokeback Mountain”‘s take on forbidden love was elegaiac in tone. In contrast, “Lust” evokes a hellish world of deception and decadence, masks and mirrors, in which impersonation tips into reality, undermining the very notion of identity.
Indiewire caught the always obliging Ang Lee on the fly between presenting his film at the Toronto International Film Festival–his favorite, he claims–and accepting the Golden Lion in Venice. Lee continued the interview by phone from L.A., before winging off to Asia for the Hong Kong and Taiwan premieres. Focus Features opens the film in limited release in the U.S. Friday, September 28.
IndieWIRE: What impelled you to make a film from Eileen Chang’s story?
Ang Lee: Two main things. Chinese society is taken up with patriotism, which is reflected in Chinese literature. I never knew what women got from sex. So the story kept haunting me. It’s the other side of the patriotic story. It was scary–but I decided to be honest and confront it. The whole thing generated lots of adrenalin. Also, Eileen Chang’s story paralleled my own life. When she [Wang] goes on stage it changed her life. She went out with her friends on a high. Exactly the same thing happened to me when I was 18. After acting in a play, I went out with friends in the drizzling rain, just like in her story.
In the book tied to “Lust, Caution” [“The Story, The Screenply, and The Making of the Film“] you make this intriguing remark: “Making our film we didn’t really ‘adapt’ the work, we simply kept returning to her theater of cruelty and love until we had enough to make a movie ot it.” Could you elaborate on that?
I’m not a translator of Eileen Chang. What I took from the novella were some emotions or fears, some unpalatable truths. She was damaged by love. And she put that energy into that story.
Why did the cruelty attract you?
Because of its honesty. It had something fresh and strong to us. It’s the other side of yourself, something hiding in the dark that you don’t want exposed. It takes boldness to expose it. We had filmmakers and actors who would go along with it, actors willing to strip naked and go for the ultimate performance and see if you can come out alive. That’s the thrill. We had to elevate a hellish experience to an artistic level that will speak to people. And [laughs] people think you’re honest instead of crazy.
You’re noted for your ability to switch genres and move from comedy of manners, to martial arts movie, to revisionist Western. Are there common threads that run through the diversity?
Relationships and love. I like drama. Even in “The Hulk” I do psychodrama. Also the theme of the social mask versus the true self. Sense and sensibility. Lust and caution. In all the genres I explore the conflict between what you’re supposed to do, and something that’s inside you that you try to repress.
What about the theme of the outsider?
All my life I feel like outsider.
Still, even with all your success?
Yes, still. That’s my destiny. Culturally I feel like an outsider, anywhere I go, even where I come from. My real cultural roots in classic China and what I was taught now feel like a dream. I feel more of an insider in movies than real life. Very much like the girl in this movie. By pretending, actually you connect with the true self. My characters are all trying to find the truth about themselves through pretending. To me pretending is filmmaking, acting. That’s what I do best.
What is the nature of the connection between Wang and Mr. Yee? In the film you suggest that physical intimacy is a world apart from questions of morality or love.
The physical intimacy between them acts as a catalyst toward love–which is a mystery. If we knew what love is we’d have finished telling love stories 3,000 years ago. [Laughs]. It’s not that simple. It can be scary in this movie. Even though [Wang and Mr. Yee] try to deny it, it only gets stronger. They do totally what they’re not supposed to do. He’s a policeman, an interrogator.
Is Mr. Yee on to her game?
It’s a mystery whether he knows or not. I think you can view the movie both ways. She knows she’s playing a part. Yet by playing a part she reached the truth. Both of them have a true self under the shell of the dutiful self.
So beneath the mask, the game, is there genuine emotion between them?
I think what they feel is very real, even though they have doubts. Through ultimate performance on both their parts, they have a taste of true love. Each time they have sex they get closer to the truth.
Mr. Yee is pretty rough in that first sex scene. What fuels his anger?
He doesn’t trust anyone. As [Wang] says in her monologue, only through inflicting pain he knows it’s real. To me–putting aside questions of patriotism, politics, morality–it’s quite poignant that he’s a man yearning for love. The violence is partly a release of rage at being occupied by the Japanese and the pressure he’s under…
When I worked with Tony [Leung] to block this first scene, his first reaction was to grab her hair and bang her head against the wall. And I said, Why are you so angry? He said, I just thought of the scene we did of dinner together in “Repulse Bay,” it was so sweet, the only happy time his character had. The rest was twists and torment… In the end, you wonder who’s in control, who’s manipulating whom. To me it’s a very interesting dramatic scene, a scary place they reach.
You really push the envelope in the way you shot the sex scenes. I’ve never seen anything quite like them.
Me neither. It was new for me. To me it’s the ultimate acting challenge. In a way, that’s what the movie is about. So I shot those scenes in a row over 12 days, earlier than in the shooting schedule.
Why shoot those scenes first?
I needed to see how it landed, because it’s not scripted. After that I had an idea of the rest of the movie. All three scenes are at different levels and she has to withstand his scrutiny as an interrogator, without him learning the truth.
How did you film them?
First I did the blocking, and then once I decided that, I called in the actors, and everyone goes out of the studio except me, the camera man, and the boom operator.
Wasn’t it mortifying and embarrassing to work on those scenes?
Of course. None of us enjoy it. By nature it’s very uncomfortable and draining and painful. I call it ultimate acting. But we used the pain. We enjoyed the pain.
Roseann Ng [First A.D.] remarked that even Tony Leung, the seasoned actor who has been through it all, was close to collapse when he finished shooting the sex scenes.
My actors and I don’t make a pornographic film every day. I had to expose my desires, talk to the actors about it, talk them through it. We’re just common people. It felt pretty harsh.
Was the love-making simulated?
I leave that to you to decide. See the movie.
I have seen the movie [twice]. Why are you coy about answering that question?
We got something great in the performance. Let’s leave the actors some room. We gave it our best shot for the ultimate performance. It was a challenge cinematically, partly because they had to deny this chemistry… We decided we had to go all the way in performing. But I won’t kill somebody for real. Someone has to draw the line.
You’ve said you picked newcomer Tang Wei to play Wang out of 2,000 candidates. What about her clinched it?
Actually, we looked at 10,000 candidates for the heroine. I didn’t want the regular or popular, like in a TV series–oval face, big-eyed Barbie. I also auditioned well known actresses in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Tang Wei wasn’t even in acting. At drama school she was only allowed to go for directing.
Was she aware of the challenges of the role?
She said, I’m in your hands. It’s not a problem, don’t worry, she was so thrilled to be considered…
James Schamus [who produced and co-wrote the script] has said there’s not a single superfluous scene in the film. What’s left, then, after you cut it for China? [The film has now cleared the Chinese censors].
First of all, we didn’t cut 30 minutes. At the press conference in Venice, someone asked, ‘Are you going to cut 30 mniutes out?’ That’s how the rumor got started. Showing this kind of film in China is unprecedented. Taiwan is more progressive than in the U.S. They don’t touch it, and all the theaters can show it. It’s important to show it in China. But will people go to see it without the sex scenes? I don’t know… They won’t get the weight of the movie. China has to catch up with the world and get a ratings system.
Why is China so puritannical?
It’s been a very enclosed environment and it hasn’t changed that much. It’s a country harder to manage than Taiwan. It will take time. The film bureau there is being very helpful in showing the movie. In the future the Chinese want to be exposed to the best in culture.
In her novella, Eileen Chang can illumine Mr. Yee’s inner life. She writes, for instance, “Now he possessed her utterly…as a tiger his kill. Alive, her body belonged to him; dead, she was his ghost.” How do you translate these snapshots of his pysche to a film?
Cinematically we show the ghostly feelings of the man. Through cinematography, lights, music you can get something roughly equivalent.
Which other movies inspired this one?
“Notorious,” a German film called “Dishonor.” “Casablanca.” I looked at old American films from the ’40s, early Bette Davis. “Laura” and film noir. Plus Chinese films of that period.
You go way out on a limb with “Lust, Caution.” The long section tracking the students’ scheme, followed by the love-making scenes, seem almost two separate movies. Do you fear criticism?
I don’t fear that sort of criticism. It would be fair to say that I know how to make regular movies. And now I want to enjoy some freedom and do something different and see what happens. To me it’s very gratifying to make such a movie. Some viewers will appreciate the effort and feel the excitement; some will criticize or be disturbed. That’s the nature of the movie. I just feel fortunate to have been able to make a movie with distributors who are also very excited. How many times do you get that? It’s a privilege.
What genre would you like to tackle next?
I don’t have a checklist of genres. But I’d choose one I can borrow and then twist.