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
PK: How did
things go in Taiwan--they
AL: Oh yeah. I was so moved I was in
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
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
[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
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
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--
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.
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—
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
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
asks you, but you usually shake off the question, as to whether they actually
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
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.
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.
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?
dropped. I call back and get Lee’s voicemail].
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