So what’s the story on Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution? Is it that it’s another award-winning period drama from the director of Sense & Sensibility, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain? Nope. Is it that the brilliantly-acted tale of patriotism, espionage, trust and betrayal set during Japan-occupied Shanghai during WWII is a thought-provoking tale of self-revelation? Not a chance.
The big news about Lust, Caution is that this is Lee’s shag movie, a misnomer given lie by the three graphic sex scenes between Tony Leung – playing the cold-blooded collaborator Mr Yee – and debutant actress Tang Wei, as the deeeeep undercover spy who’s actually setting him up.
It was certainly the sight of Leung’s conkers a’ clangin’ that set festival audiences chattering rather than the emotionally wrought tale of a young shy woman who becomes lost – or possibly discovers her true self – in her own role as the high class seductress.
This has gotten Lee’s schnizzle in a tizzle, having already had to defend his movie in the Asian press after the Cannes festival. But rather than a being the ‘Sizzler’ of tabloid repute, the sex scenes are almost uncomfortable to watch; brutal, desperate, exploratory and eventually tender, they show two very lost souls connecting.
Actually this reminds Total Film of is the bond between Jack and Ennis in Brokeback, which is the first question we fire at Lee when we bump knees over a tape recorder.
Speaking softly, his Taiwan accent is lightly salted with the flavours of his native New York, he perches himself on the edge of the sofa which now looms over him. Talking about his movie, and its themes, gradually the hesitant smile which greets TF is replaced by something genuinely cheery, peppering the interview with tiny sprays of laughter…
Lust, Caution is thematically similar to Brokeback. Why follow one with the other?
I think I’m into the idea of possible romance. To me these two are a sisterly work. They’re both from beloved, and at the same time frightening female writers [‘Lust, Caution’ was written by Eileen Chang] who wrote short stories about impossible or forbidden love. Their feminine point of view is frightening to the structure of our society. This one is far more frightening in its point of view than /Brokeback/. This isn’t portraying gay cowboys, this is the female orgasm vs patriotism. That’s pretty frightening! [laughs]
What else drew you to the movie?
The other thing was that the route that the lead character goes though is very much like my own. When she’s standing on stage at 18 years old and finding by pretending she’s more powerful, she touches her real self. She discovers performance. And that becomes a power. Everything about it I can relate to.I pretty much shot that scene from memory of my first time on stage. So this was very attractive to me but frightening at the same time.
Have you found that – like Chai Chi in the movie – you’ve discovered new truths about yourself while making your movies?
Yeah, I kind of perform with the camera. I use people as elements of my kind of performing. Here’s the irony: Through pretending Chai Chi finds her power, but who’s to say that true love is not about performance? She finds true love in a weird way through performance, through her sexuality, and that’s a strange chemistry in life and I’ve found that too.
After making “The Gay Cowboy” movie, you must have been aware that this would be seen as your “Sex Movie”?
I think that’s a superficial take on the movie. If that gets people to see the movie then fine. But I think any serious discussion wouldn’t just be focused on the sex. To me, the in-between sex scenes are a lot sexier than the tortuous sex scenes. I think the sex scenes are highly dramatic. They’re essential to the movie, they anchored in emotion. You understand the characters, their secrecy… it’s all exposed in those scenes. They say without dialogue what they don’t say to themselves, they perform. And sex is indeed a performance. [laughs]
How did you convince a superstar like Tony Leung to take a risk with a movie like this?
I didn’t feel any hesitation from him. I didn’t have to twist his arm. He could smell it. [laughs] Like a fly smells blood!
Why did you hire an unknown actress for the central part?
Well, there were no known actresses that fitted the part. It’s not like there’s a whole pool of them. There’s Zhang Ziyi, but if she doesn’t fit then there’s not a lot more. It’s not like here or in the States. So we found her through 10,000 actresses… a sea of actresses.
She’s excellent in those crucial mahjong scenes, which subtly reveal so much about each character. They remind me of your signature table sequences from Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense & Sensibility and The Ice Storm. Were these your inclusions?
The dialogue is in the book, but to get the gameplay the way it is – to get the essence of the characters in the midst of the game… in Chinese they call the table-play “Civil war”. And that’s my cinematic ambition. [laughs]