Cautionary tale: Lee on "Lust"

I recently interviewed Ang Lee about his new film “Lust, Caution,” an adaptation of a short story by the revered Chinese auther Eileen Chang He was on a cell phone, riding or maybe even driving through New York while talking to me. This is an arrangement I don’t recommend. The reception was frequently garbled — maybe on both ends, because Lee’s answers were sometimes — and every ten minutes or so cut off. I’d ask a long, carefully thought out question and there would be silence. I’d repeat the question, differently phrased, worried that Lee might have been offended or perhaps killed in a traffic accident. Then I realized we were disconnected and
I’d call back and he’d resume answering the previous question. It was a little like being in one of those Cingular/AT&T dropped call commercials.
  At any rate I was able to glean some worthwhile material about the movie and it’s many controversies, which includes not only its rambunctuously graphic sex scenes between Tony Leung as a vicious Chinese collaborator during WWII and newcomer Wei Tang as an undercover spy, but also because it presents the Chinese experience in this period in a not altogether flattering light. Not a big deal here, maybe, but an issue in Taiwan and Hong Kong where Lee had just premiered the film.

PK: Are you in Hong Kong, because the last I heard you were in Hong Kong when the movie was premiered there 

AL: I was in Hong Kong, Taiwan and I just flew back. I’m in New York now.

PK: How did things go in Taiwan--they liked it?

AL: Oh yeah. I was so moved I was in tears—in public.

PK: Would say it was one of the best receptions you got for any of your movies there?

AL: It was the most [successful?] movie I’ve ever had. I was sitting there with the audience and I could feel that it [inaudible except for “fat” “in the heart” and “punch me in the guts”]. It’s a tough movie for them, but I could feel the energy. They didn’t come out with their heads down; they were very emotional. It was as very emotional experience.

PK: So, it deals with a past that most people probably don’t speak about.

AL: Yeah, the past. The way we live through them, the way I was raised. They lose it in the public eye of fear, but there will always be a solution at the end. It’s a pretty tough movie, but I really think people embraced it. I couldn’t get a ticket to get in the first couple days.

PK: I read that in Hong Kong you said that you thought it was a film that American audiences wouldn’t appreciate—that it was more like a Chinese movie.

 [Long pause. A dropped call. Redialed]

AL: …yeah, it was a very emotional experience for me. Most people couldn’t find words for it. Even critics are pretty quiet—relatively quiet. It seems like they need a second viewing, or something, to figure out what they think. I think it hit pretty hard.

PK: In Hong Kong, you said you didn’t expect American audiences to…

AL: Yes, it’s a level 3 [ a censorship designation?]. Usually, it’s equivalent to porno film. But people are really going to see it, whether the reaction [can be?] is pretty tremendous.

PK: Are you somewhat regretting it had so much explicit sex, because it seems the whole conversation surrounding the film, at least here in the United States, is about the sex scenes. Do you think that’s kind of not the right focus for the film?

AL: I don’t mind if the focus on those three scenes, I think it’s a shame because I think the whole movie is pretty sexy, probably because of those three scenes. I do as much [something like “reduction”] as possible both ways, but when I dive into those sex scenes it was pretty dramatic driven. That’s how I could convince myself and my actors to go through with it.

PK: Would you describe those scenes as pornographic, because I saw in one interview that you said you don’t shoot pornography all the time, so that sort of implies-- [garbled?]

AL: Yeah, it’s very hard. I think it’s not hard for some people. But for me and, at least, for Tony, it’s pretty hard. That’s just how it

goes. There’s nothing wrong with it; it’s just hard for us.

PK: The actress who was in it—this was her first movie.

AL: Her first movie, yes. She seems to be pretty natural when you put her in the zone. She’ll do anything as long as she’s in the part, she’ll do anything. She’s almost like a child actor. It’s really nice in how much she devoted to the character and the believability. The difficult part is that I had to couch her in the different skills.

PK: So, you designed all the rather ornate and complex sexual positions?

AL: Yes, pretty much, I did.

PK: Did you get that from a book?

AL: Yeah, I’m pretty guilty of that; I had to try all those positions. For a thematic purpose—

[someone’s phone rings; long pause; disconnected; called again]

AL: … I was guilty of designing those shots. The only way I could pull it off was to be dramatic and ornate. They were designed for a thematic purpose; therefore, it’s easy for actors to do their action.

PK: Was anyone injured in some of those positions? It seems as though some of them required some athleticism.


AL: …for dramatic needs, it’s easier for actors to express their feelings. Like who you’re blocking a scene, even it’s about balancing a scene. Secondly--visually, to stimulate the audience. To veer them towards what I want them to think about the scene. Pretty much pure dramatic cinematic pieces rather than sexual fantasy.

PK: But a little bit of that probably went into it, right?

AL: Well, yeah. That’s something I would probably deny, but probably some [sounds like  “houses”]. Because it worked for me, so it must be part of my fantasy. But I just think that way—what do I need to tell a story. I actually shot those scenes relatively early in the shooting schedule. I wanted to see how they landed before I could crop the second half of the movie.

PK: So you used that as a dramatic--

AL: Anchor, yeah. It’s an abstract feeling. About how you feel solid in your heart than with the heart that you make the movie, something like that. It’s a strange process that I had never experienced before.

PK: Everybody asks you, but you usually shake off the question, as to whether they actually did it.

AL: Yeah, I can’t answer that question. Either way, it’s kind of awkward. I can tell they’re great actors—their very devoted to the movie, their roles and their situation, their dramatic situation.

PK: How about that scene where he shoves her head against the wall? Does she actually get her head banged against the wall?

AL: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Certainly. But it’s padded wall. You can feel the bounce, the collision.

PK: It’s kind of a parallel to the interrogations that the guy does that happen off screen.

AL: Yeah, that’s the only scene where you see what he does—and the frustration and the repression.

PK: Everybody talks about the sex scenes. I found much more graphic and disturbing the one killing scene in the movie.

AL: Oh yes. That scene is what I call the “mitzvah” scene. They had the girl lose her virginity and somehow they also have to lose innocence. It’s a ritual kind of sceneis  how I see it, so that’s the direction I decided to go to. It’s about disillusion, about growth—it’s about the war though I never really show the war.  This is the other side of the war, the darker side of the war. I felt I had to introduce it and to get into the second half.

PK: That wasn’t in the book.

AL: Yeah, it’s not there. That passage of three years between Hong Kong and Shanghai there is almost nothing. We’re making a film here. She didn’t put much into the characters much, either. I had to develop them.

PK: In this movie, and also in your previous movie, unlike other adaptations you’ve done, you’ve gone from—instead of a long or longish novel and cutting it down—you’ve taken a short story and

AL: Only the last two movies, since Brokeback Mountain.

PK: Is that just a coincidence?

AL: I think so. But, again, who’s to say? You know, I have a lot of choices, why did I choose to make two short stories in a row? I think it’s because you have more space. With a novel, usually, you feel obliged, especially if it’s a famous writer, to tell the story and put everything that’s in the book and you don’t have much time to do your own thing.

PK: Tony Leung, when I was watching it, it occurred to me that he’s almost playing the same role here as he did in In the Mood for Love, except there’s graphic sex and World War II. Did you have that film in mind at all when you were making this one?

[Call is dropped. I call back and get Lee’s voicemail].

FEMALE VOICEMAIL VOICE: Please leave your message…

To be continued…

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