Ang Lee: "I Like to Keep That Mystery"

By Sean Axmaker

Ang Lee Critics (including myself) and pundits have already pointed out that there is more caution than lust in Ang Lee's Lust, Caution. But then what would you expect from a director whose career is defined by characters who either repress their true feelings out of cultural expectation or social shame, or mask their emotions with manners and rituals? There's more complexity to these tensions in this erotic espionage thriller, of course. The lust is so inextricably caught up, and in some ways compounded, by the caution that when Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), a collaborator working for the Japanese in occupied Shanghai during World War II, finally consummates his affair with Wang Jiazhi (Tang Wei), a young actress turned agent for the resistance, the stillness of restraint snaps like a dry twig and he explodes like a wild animal. Sex is power in every way, at least when the pent up desire is unleashed, but it's also a force that overwhelms and confuses the emotional balance of the young woman.

Lust, Caution won the Golden Lion for Best film at the Venice Film Festival (Lee's second in three years; he won for Brokeback Mountain in 2005) and is currently in release in the United States. Lee stopped in Seattle on his promotional tour and I had the chance to sit down and talk with the Oscar-winning director about the film in some detail.


The opening scene of Lust, Caution is a game of Mahjong with the wives of powerful men and it seems all politeness and small talk, but underneath are games of dominance and shows of power and one-upmanship.

It's a battle. In their conversation, in their implicit looks to each other, also in the game, they're killing each other. It's like poker, you have to watch the countenance on the people and calculate what kind of tiles they have. So there's a lot of things are happening on many layers all at once, and all the servants are at ease.

It sets up the template for the movie: everything is going to be played under a façade of politeness and social manner. Games are going to be played under the social niceties.

I think so. I'm glad you caught that. Also, there's a war outside that we don't see, so I think it's a good implication of war.

It certainly suggests the tensions outside the mansion, and it introduces the society of collaborators and tension between them and the occupied population outside resisting the Japanese.

And jealousy. We don't know who has relations with Mr. Yee. There's a lot of it going on. And who is Mrs. Yee [Joan Chen]? Is she the leader of the pack? There's a lot of possibilities that play out on the Mahjong table. We call the Mahjong game a civil war, like a square-shaped civil war. You close up in four directions, you're beating each other inside. It's called civil war. That's in a way what the movie's about. There's this Japanese occupation, but the war you see is Chinese killing each other. They take sides in killing each other.

Lust, Caution You are working again with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who shot Brokeback Mountain. This film has a very lush, rich studio style. What did you and Prieto watch to prepare, what did you watch for your visual cues to build this look?

Old Cathay films, the pre-Shaw Brothers studio, because that's a good connection between the time period I'm portraying and today. So a lot of patriotic references and good drama from back then to get nuances, and a lot of Shanghai movies from the 30s. And film noirs. Old film noirs of the 40s, those black and whites, were helpful, even though we tried to do it in color and focus on a new way for doing film noir.

And a bunch of paintings. Which is not necessarily period Shanghai, because if you check out the old Shanghai movies, they're not that mature yet. It's the dawn of the Chinese film industry, they're trying to imitate Hollywood. But a lot of paintings. One special thing was the Northern Light paintings of the Scandinavian/Rotterdam school, that kind of painting with their northern light: the yellow haze, side light, low sunlight, that's our climactic look. When it gets to the darker period of the day, we have a glow of purplish pink - that's the diamond's color. That is a big burden for Rodrigo because that sequence is long, shot over a period of one week or eight days that he has to keep that light consistent for the whole street. That was pretty challenging for him.

In one scene, the characters walk past a poster for a Hitchcock film. Is it Notorious?

It's Suspicion. Notorious is very close to the plot of this movie, and I re-examined it and introduced to my actors. But yes, Suspicion. That was a big hit in Shanghai in 1942 so I put a poster there. The movie is somewhat Hitchcockian, so I think it's proper. I would have used film clips except that it's too on-the-nose for what we were doing with female anxiety.

There is another scene that reminds me of Hitchcock, and that's when Lee's bodyguard comes to the group to blackmail them and they try to kill him and he just won't die. It wasn't like the scene in Torn Curtain in any stylistic way, but it made me think of the film.

The main aspects of the movie that I think are Hitchcockian are the music and some set-ups. But that particular scene was like Bar Mitzvah for me. It's a coming of age for the boys. That's why I did it, not because of influence from Hitchcock movies. But there are other aspects in the movie that I took inspiration from Hitchcock.

What it reminded me of in Torn Curtain is that someone who has never killed a person before is suddenly faced with it and they find out how hard it is, physically and emotionally.

It's a disillusionment, the real deal. Because later on I'm going to show the real deal about sex. I think it's a good establishing scene to get into the second half of the film. The illusion is over, they're getting to the real deal, let's go to Shanghai. That's why I did it in that fashion. It has less to do with Hitchcock than other scenes in the movie.

Wang Jiazhi and her group of fairly outgoing theater students have their own sense of decorum where they don't let out their feelings for one another even when they are celebrating and relaxing in the comfort of their group. So when she becomes a spy and has to pretend to be in love with Mr. Yee, and then the sex becomes involved, I find that the physical contact and the chemical rush of sex overwhelms her emotional state. Because she has never had any experience, it's all new and overwhelming.

That's very much the story of her generation. Not only society, where you don't know what they're getting into, what sex is about, no discussion, no education. From literature you'd never know what women get from sex. It was very prohibited. Even though they are in their romanticism period of our history and the free association between boys and girls that was happening shortly before their era. It was new, it was very romantic to them, but the old teaching was still in them. They were pretty oblivious to sex. Even the boys, only one kind of bad boy had experience in the brothel house, but the rest of them, they're all virgins. They're college students; they're my parents' generation.

They won't even talk about it when she's in the middle of it. When she tries to tell the Kuang [Lee-Hom Wang] about what she's going through with Yee, he shuts her down, he won't listen to her.

No, they won't talk about it. The typical scene of that generation is when they are on the bus, on the tram. He says, "Thank you." She says, "For what?" And he bashfully sits back. He blushes. And she has that little hidden smile to herself. That's as far as it goes back then. That's the innocence of the era. That scene actually makes me cry. That scene makes me very emotional; it reminds me of my childhood. Of my age of innocence, so to speak.

After all the surface politeness and deference of the film, you hit the audience with a very explicit sex scene. Actually, the first scene isn't as explicit as it is violent.

Violence is part of the explicitness.

That first sex scene is about Yee's complete dominance over Jiazhi, like he's the conquering army and she's the spoils. And then you get into a very explicit sexual scene. So why did you make them so explicit, knowing that those scenes would be banned in China?

It's not banned; we just have to recut it to get a pass, to be able to release it, because they don't have a ratings system. I hope the movie is self-explanatory. I think most people who have seen it agree that it's an integral part of the movie, if not a crucial development of the plot. To say the least, I think it angers the emotion and the quality of the characters of the situation, of psychological weight. I think it does all that, and also it's a treasurable performance, an ultimate performance for me.

In a way, that's what the movie's about: How sincere they are, how much he wants to get the truth out of her, how she will perform and devote herself to the performance and therefore lose herself in the pleasure which he means as a sense of love. To deny it, no. It's part of the plot, the storytelling, that we did with body language, with their performance, with their look, with the touch of each other, with the thrust, so to speak, and everything. It's just that we're not used to performing with those elements. We don't strip down to do those things, for our culture, for decency, for the moral code. But we decided to dive into it and deliver the performance that way.

 

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