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.
AL: It happens in a variety of ways. A lot of the time someone will walk in and you’ll know instantly that it’s him or it’s her. You may keep seeing people but you always end up coming back to that person. That happened in this case. And then there are things when you have to go for known actors. It had to be Tony Leung in that role and I hoped that he’d agree to do it. And then there are times where in the course of talking to them you gradually start to see the character grow in them. That happens too, when it’s not at first sight. During a half-hour meeting or reading you gradually figure out that this is your person. And it’s happened, in the past, that I’ve let an actor go and only realised after doing so that they were the right person!
It sounds like whether it’s a new actor or an established actor and whether you know they’re right instantly or it takes you some time that it’s ultimately an instinctive thing.
AL: A lot of the time. But your instincts can be wrong, too, so you can never been too sure. And I’ve learned from that! [laughs] There’ve been times when I’ve been sure I was right and it’s not worked out great. Really anything can happen.
The film is being released by Focus uncut as an NC-17 in the US which seems to be very brave considering the climate towards that rating in the US…
AL: I think it’s very brave, but it’s very exciting at the same time. It gives James [Shamus’] life some vibrancy! [laughs] It’s like a shot for him! But, yeah, it’s very difficult to release an NC-17 and while I was making the movie I didn’t even know that it existed. It seems to have come up in the early nineties and I didn’t really see it do so.
Do you feel that there should be organisations rating films? If books aren’t rated, why are films?
AL: That’s a very good and difficult question. There are always laws and film is a lot bigger and more massive. It’s more direct media and I think for some people, for children, it needs protection. Books aren’t as big and, I think, not as visceral. They’re words and it’s indirect. It’s up to the imagination and it’s less imposing, I guess.
But it’s very hard to divide the ratings by age. I felt very silly telling my sixteen year-old son that he might want to wait a few days until he turned seventeen to see the movie. He got offended and he took it as an insult, and not from the law but from me. [laughs] He didn’t take it very well and I think rightfully. When he was fourteen I think he knew a lot more than me and could deal with more! So, no, I don’t think that’s fair, but there’ve got to be laws somewhere.
Have you ever experienced an issue with ratings in the past? I would imagine the studio had a very specific idea of the rating they expected you to deliver on Hulk.
AL: Not so much. I’ve made two gay-themed movies that got R-ratings while in Taiwan they were PG. I thought that was rather ironic! [laughs] But other than that, not really. We didn’t have any problem with Hulk. In Germany they wanted us to cut out a couple of little shots; they’ve very sensitive to needles and we had that scene with the experiment with the monkey and the kid.
Oh – [laughs] – Sense and Sensibility got a G rating and everybody freaked out! I had to add two dirty words to get a PG! But I guess that’s kind-of contrary to what you’re asking!
But other than those little things, it was not until this film that I’ve really had to confront the ratings system, and I count myself lucky for that.