NEW YORK—Ang Lee remembers what it was like when he decided to make “Sense and Sensibility,” his first English-language film. The condescension. The whispering that this Taiwanese director couldn’t possibly “get” the Jane Austen source material. The feeling that even his attempting to film such a classic was sheer chutzpah.
“I tried to talk my way out of it,” Lee says today. “Why can’t I do it? Film language is universal. I got help, thanks to Emma (Thompson, who starred and wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay). Thank you this, thank you that, I learned this. ... But the truth is when you pay enough attention, you can do anything. If you’re a talented filmmaker, you can make it happen. But condescending is annoying, and back then I couldn’t really react. Nobody asked Martin Scorsese why he made `Kundun.’ `What do you know about Tibet?’ Nobody asked.”
Lust, Caution (Se, jie)
Tang Wei, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Joan Chen, Wang Lee-Hom
(Focus Features; US theatrical: 28 Sep 2007 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 4 Jan 2008 (General release); 2007)
No one questions Lee about his choices anymore, although the 52-year-old director, who is as low-key, deferential and self-critical as they come, says it wasn’t until he won an Oscar for “Brokeback Mountain” that “people stopped asking me, `Why are you making American movies?”`
The fact is, Lee has surged to the forefront of his profession, segueing smoothly among genre pictures (“The Hulk”), dramas (“The Ice Storm”) and Chinese-language computer-generated imagery fantasies (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). Now, seven years after directing the multiple-Oscar-winning “Crouching Tiger,” he’s back with another Chinese film, “Lust, Caution,” which might be the most controversial work of his career.
Set during Japan’s occupation of China in World War II, the film tells the story of a young student (Tang Wei, making her film debut) recruited by a resistance organization and given the job of seducing a collaborator (Tony Leung), who will then be assassinated. The picture is long, leisurely and extremely well-acted, and exhibits lush production values.
But it is “Lust, Caution’s” extremely explicit sex scenes—which have earned it an NC-17 rating and will be cut for the Chinese market—that will really get people talking. If nothing else, audiences will wonder how Lee got his actors to do what they do.
“They’re good actors,” he says simply. “It’s a step-by-step process into the role, into the world (of the film). The actors have a very firm belief in the characters, their motivations. It’s well explained from shot to shot, moment to moment. Of course, the first couple of days are difficult, but gradually you just make the leap.”
“The most helpful thing was that Ang, Tony and the director of photography were so nice and professional,” Tang says. “They made me feel comfortable, so we were able to just focus on our work. Of course we rehearsed, and the love things we discussed before. So a lot of it was not just demands from Ang, it was a collaboration. They protected me, and I felt comfortable and wanted to give back more hard work to the film.”
Yet it wasn’t only the sex scenes that were a cause for concern. Lee says he avoided the project, based on a famous Chinese short story, for years. Part of it was the politics:
Acknowledging a collaborationist government during World War II has long been a sensitive subject in China. The other issue was Lee’s own fears.
“It’s female sexual psychology, combined with our most patriotic war against the Japanese,” he says. “That’s frightening. If something frightens me, then it hooks me. It means under my consciousness, my personality, there’s something else in myself that I am curious to take a peek at. It takes a lot of courage, courage to face yourself. Whatever it is, I’ll resist until I feel it’s my destiny to make the movie.”
Lee admits “Lust, Caution’s” plot bears more than a passing resemblance to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 classic, “Notorious,” but that’s OK by him. He’s more concerned that the film will be accepted in Japan, a country that has shown a reluctance to acknowledge the crimes it committed in China during the war.
“I think the portrayal of the humiliation of the Chinese is relatively mild, rather than going for the atrocity,” Lee says. “I don’t think it’s what the movie needs. Once you see the Chinese bowing their heads, that’s enough. In Venice (“Lust, Caution” won the top award at the recent Venice Film Festival), the Japanese press and distributors appreciated the film. I hope the humanity, the drama, prevails. It’s a pretty mild depiction of history.”
Lee takes a sip of hot tea. He’s just jumped from Venice to the Toronto Film Festival to New York, and is obviously fried. It’s clear he wants to go home to his house in Westchester County, where his life, he says, is “really boring. I do cooking, hang around, a little bit of gardening and house chores, and get yelled at by my wife.”
It sounds like a peaceful counterpoint to the filmmaking process, which, for Lee, is draining.
“I’m very boring, weak and shy in real life,” Lee says. “In movies I get totally absorbed and do a lot of brave things. Making movies, people listen to me; I seem to be a good leader. I don’t know how I do it. It’s painful to watch. It drains me. And sometimes makes me want to stop doing it.”