Ang Lee on Lust, Caution: The RT Interview
The visionary director talks sex and dirty words with RT.Ang Lee's feature film career, which began with Pushing Hands in Taiwan in 1992, has had its ups and downs as he's struggled with box office receipts and studio pressures, but his films have generally been successful with critics and when Brokeback Mountain became 2005's awards darling, despite missing out on Oscar glory, it seemed Lee had become a hot property in Hollywood.
Returning to Chinese cinema with Lust, Caution, Lee continues to deliver provocative and highly varied works, basing the film on an Eileen Chang short story about a group of patriotic Chinese students who plot to kill a key member of the Japanese collaborationist government. The film has landed an NC-17 rating in America for graphic depictions of sex between its two lead characters, but was unconventionally released uncut, despite the policies of many cinema chains prohibiting the programming of NC-17-rated films.
In an exclusive chat, RT caught up with Lee on the eve of the film's UK release to find out more about Lust, Caution and how the ratings system has affected his work.
How did you find Eileen Chang's short story for Lust, Caution originally?
Ang Lee: We grew up reading and loving Eileen Chang's stories, she's the most revered and loved writer in modern Chinese history. But I came across this material about three or four years ago and when I read it I was surprised it was Eileen Chang. It was one of her later works and it's quite obscure, really. Hardly anyone read it or knew of it. Turns out she spent nearly thirty years revising it.
I think most of her writing is about things and people she knows but this is really about herself and I think that's why she was so scared, because she had this relationship with a collaborator that lasted two years before he dumped her and she hates him. For obvious reasons!
What was it about the story that grabbed you?
AL: Well, two things came to mind after reading it. One was that it was quite scary, the thought of making it into a movie, because it's a story about women's sexuality set against patriotism and the two put together is, for Chinese people, quite scary. The other thing was the notion of the leading actress going through pretending and playing to find her true self. That was a provoking notion to me and it was irresistible.
As a matter of fact the way her first night on stage was described was exactly how I remember my first night on stage and I pretty-much shot the scene from my experience. It changed my life. I found something in the dark through the glare of spotlights beyond the vague audience and that something was the real me. He was there, up on stage, he was nothing before but a reflection of that. The preceding moments in my life disappeared in that moment; the real deal was found on the stage.
So that really intrigued me and I even also went out with friends after the show so hyped up that I couldn't calm down and we were singing in the drizzling rain all night. I heard the call of this story, but it was frightening and I resisted it for quite a while until I was promoting Brokeback Mountain when I decided I wanted to start writing the script.
It's an incredibly complex leading role and I'm sure a daunting task for the most accomplished of actors, but this is Tang Wei's first feature film. How did you find her?
AL: Nobody I knew of fit the description of what I thought this person would be. So we went through over 10,000 actresses to get through to her. I saw less than 100, I hasten to add! But my team went through a process of seeing more than 10,000 actresses and putting together a short list. When she walked in I had a feeling it was her movie. I talked to her, read her and she did the best reading.
She has this position, this demeanour, that's very-much like the classic Chinese, and it's very rare these days. It's like my parent's generation. Her figure is very close to how it's described in the short story. It just seemed like she fit; she was Wong Chia Chi.
Another thing that really attracted me to her for the role was that I felt she was almost the female equivalent of me. I felt I could create this movie and let it ride on her performance and I felt that confidently. It was just a feeling I had that she was very close to me.