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Torment and obsession both create and become the art in the hands of director Ang Lee -- whose latest film Lust, Caution explores sexuality and occupation in wartime Shanghai.
Interview translations by Junzhi Li and Winghei Kwok.
Lust, Caution has had its fair share of controversial headlines in the past month -- from the salacious (the undisputed NC-17 rating) to the political (A "Taiwan, China" categorization at Venice angered Taiwan's Mainland Affairs council) to the "critical" (its Golden Lion win despite mixed reviews).
The meticulously-executed sex scenes warranting the NC-17 have been much discussed, but the danger of terrifying children into thinking sex always involves lies, emotionally-torturous power play, and abusive Asian men seems to be just as good of a reason for the rating as its explicit nature. The Taiwan-China political storm, which Ang Lee inevitably gets caught up in from time to time, solicited a poignant "You know where I come from" shrug from the director at the Venice Film Festival.
At the Los Angeles press event in the Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel, Lee engaged in some thoughtful discussion about the different international responses to his film, summing up much of the critical jabs with a Chinese idiom: dui niu tan qing, which translates literally to "playing a musical instrument to a cow" -- there's no use debating it; you're just speaking to the wrong audience.
"They said the film is too long and boring," says Ang Lee, referring to the film's most popular American criticism, "But when I saw it in Taiwan, I felt it was too fast, that you don't even have time to enjoy it. There's too much content."
So far, Asian audiences have been extremely supportive. Lust, Caution recently broke the NT$100 million dollar mark in Taiwan and has done considerable business in Hong Kong and Malaysia. Americans critics have been slower to warm up to it, but Lee anticipates that the film will be welcomed in Europe, as European viewers tend to be more intrigued by learning about other cultures through film.
"Americans are more subjective," observes Lee. "They think a movie should be a certain way, and if it's not, then it has failed. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon met their standards and requests, so they were interested in it, even if it was just met by a little. That type of film language is global. To [Americans], it was just like a fairy tale, kind of a fantasy. But this one [Lust, Caution] is about hardboiled history and drama."
Conversely, the reception for an American-acclaimed film like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was shakier in Asia. "Martial arts films are basically [expected to be] a 'low quality' type of film, but it's very welcomed in Taiwan," says Lee. "But then it came to the mainland and Hong Kong, and we got totally different responses. Hong Kongers have already tired of this; they don't want to see more. While mainlanders thought this type of movie was just to please the foreigners, since it is so popular in America."
It's tough to please everyone as an Oscar-winning director, but this time around, Lust, Caution -- his first Chinese-language film after a series of high-profile American films -- had wormed itself deeper into his heart. Lee had read Eileen Chang's devastating short story of the same name, and despite his fears, he couldn't resist the temptation to transform it onto the screen.
While making Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was more about fulfilling his childhood dreams and making people "fly in the sky," Lee took the task of representing 1930-40s Shanghai, Chinese loyalty during the anti-Japanese war, and female sexuality psychology (not often explored in mainstream Chinese writing) very seriously.
At first, he wasn't sure if the mainland would give him permission to film there, due to the political and graphic nature of the film. But at the end of the day, ("Thanks to the Oscar, I guess...") he was allowed to shoot in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Zhejiang, as well as parts of Malaysia. Lee figured it was because the story is set in the past and doesn't touch upon any issues of Communist Party (with the exception of a few KMT references that were harder to swallow) that the Chinese government was pretty supportive.
Hong Kong film icon Tony Leung Chiu-wai was cast as Mr. Yee, a Chinese official working for Japanese occupiers. Mainland television actress Tang Wei plays Wong Chia Chi/Mrs. Mak, a woman enlisted to seduce Mr. Yee in a plot to assassinate him. New York-born Taiwanese pop star Wang Leehom was chosen as Kuang Yu Min, the patriotic student who joins the organized resistance. And, Shanghai-born international actress-director Joan Chen joined the production to play Mrs. Yee, Leung's discerning wife.
Through his casting as well as the numerous dialects, accents, and languages that you hear in Lust, Caution, Lee attempts to orchestrate a realistic portrayal of China and its diversity. This is even carried through to the ending credits, where the names of the cast and crew are written in both Traditional and Simplified Chinese, depending on where the person has come from: "to show respect to the people in China -- the workers," explains Lee.
"There are so many different accents of Chinese, from city to city," says Wang Leehom, "Even more so than in the U.S. You go from city to city and there are different accents for Mandarin."
"I should use [even] more dialects," says Lee. "The part in Hong Kong should be in Cantonese. But I think for distribution, Mandarin is more usable, even in Hong Kong. So I chose less important scenes to use more dialects."
The servants and people on the streets speak Shanghainese. The workers at the jewelry store, including acclaimed Indian actor Anupam Kher in a small but pivotal role, speak English.
"I think it's important to give flavor," say Lee. "And also to remind people that there are a lot of foreigners, that speak Italian, English...."
Another way he preserved authenticity was by choosing to use Southern Mandarin, not the Beijing Mandarin that is prevalently dubbed over many Chinese TV series. ("Just because Beijing offers the most jobs, doesn't mean that [everyone speaking with the Beijing accent] is real," says Lee.) Even with Tang Wei, who grew up in the Southern city of Hangzhou but went to school and worked in Beijing, Lee tried to bring her accent down.
"Ang was very particular about the accent he wanted me to speak with my character," says Wang Leehom, referring to the southern Chinese accent, nanfang guoyu. "It's what he considers to be the biaozhun, or standard. He was very specific. He didn't want me to speak with jingpianzi and the juanshe or the Taiwan accent."
"I purposely cast everyone South of the Yangzhou River," jokes Lee. "I rejected everyone north of [it.]"
This type of attention to detail came across not just in the language training, but in all the homework Ang Lee devised for the actors (especially feature film novices Tang Wei and Wang Leehom) -- deluging them with information about the characters and time period: films to watch, books to read, World War II history lessons, etiquette lessons, calligraphy lessons, mahjong lessons. By the end, they called him xiaozhang, or principal. And just like in the film, the torture and the pleasure became intertwined.
"I think I enjoy the torment," muses Wei. "If the actors don't like the torment, then I don't think they can become good actors, because it's the director [Lee] himself that is most tormented -- not us. thinks about the movie 24 hours a day, thinking about it in his dreams."
"He's completely focused," agrees Joan Chen. "He talked about nothing else. No trivialities, just this film, this film, and this scene. Extremely obsessed. But it's the obsession that it takes to get you there."
"He's being tormented by three people," adds Wei. "I just think about Wong Chia Chi, Tony just thinks about Mr. Yee, and Leehom just thinks about Kuang Yu Min. But he thinks about them one by one, and from each character's angle. And from there, he has to think about the structure of the whole movie before he can direct us."
On directing Tony Leung, Ang Lee remarks: "I have a lot to say, and he doesn't speak. He looks at me like he's scared. I had never seen him like that. I think deep down in his heart he is happy to work with me. I told him, 'You're so talented. I will do you wrong if I don't torture you enough.' Then I tormented him and told him, 'I think you still have energy to go on,' and he goes, 'Yeah, you are right.' And he just keeps going. He is a rarity."
Now, after dedicating a year of his life to Lust, Caution and still running around promoting the film at numerous world, national, and city premieres, Lee isn't thinking about another Oscar. (Despite Taiwan's decision to enter Lust, Caution as their foreign language film nominee.) He just hopes that Chinese audiences will accept his practice of discussing sex and the anti-Japanese war together, through interconnected themes of the occupier vs. the occupied.
"Every time I make a film, I feel like it's time to retire," reflects Lee. "My health, my mind. Not only am I willing to dig it out, but every time I dig out something, I feel that it is the end. I can't stand the mental pressure, and I think about retirement. It was the same for this movie. But so far I haven't reached the end yet, because human capacity is bottomless."
Lee calls himself a slow bloomer. He made his martial arts movies with "a child's heart"; he only in recent years made films like Brokeback Mountain which are about romance, something he suspects people think about more when they're in their 20s. Now he feels more of his age at 52.
"Before, I would just go for it. Now, I balance my options before I decide what to do. On the other hand, I also see that I may regret not doing certain things.... If I don't make a [certain] movie, I will miss it forever. I will regret it; even history might regret it."
But he acknowledges, "The mental pressure is very high."
Date Posted: 10/5/2007