The Ang Lee Session: Some notes on the making of Lust, Caution

This article was originally published as “Ang Lee, Outsider” in the October 13, 2007, issue of Northwest Asian Weekly. Reprinted by permission.

On a gray October morning in downtown Seattle, Ang Lee and I met to talk about his new movie, Lust, Caution. Although the film unfurls against a major event in Chinese history, the occupation of Shanghai by Japanese forces in the early 1940s, Lee narrows his focus from the war at large to a boudoir battlefield. The combatants are Tony Leung, in a demonic turn, as a collaborationist dedicated to snuffing out resistance fighters; and superb newcomer Tang Wei, as an unsure of herself student actress who lands the role of a lifetime: spying for Chinese nationalists and bedding down with the enemy. Their sex scenes are explicit, the milieu around them fatalistic, slippery.

Lee, who’ll turn 53 later this month, told me that he keeps the Best Director Academy Award he won for Brokeback Mountain in the basement-level study of his New York home. While he acknowledges that, “It’s a big deal for Asians, winning an Oscar,” he adds, “You can never use that as a mark of artistic achievement. You shouldn’t, because it’s a popular vote.”

Actors as dissimilar as Emma Thompson, Ziyi Zhang, and Anne Hathaway have praised Lee for the hands-on, almost sculptural approach he takes in refining their performances. I asked him to describe his method of directing actors.

Ang Lee: First tailor it [one-on-one] then you have to put them in the same movie. Balance each other out. I direct quite differently in English-language films from Chinese. Especially with Chinese, I’m much more authoritative. I do a lot of non-stop talking, give them lots of [he laughs] cultural stuff. With English, I’m more suggestive, more polite, a lot quieter, more observant. Well, you have to be observant either way. One thing that the Chinese actors found was that I seem to synch with them: what they’re thinking, I’m thinking. Maybe it’s because I performed before—I’m just sensitive to what they’re going through internally. I’m not an acting coach. I rehearse them, to see what I get from them before I decide how to shoot.

N.P. Thompson: What were your visual inspirations for the bedroom scenes in Lust, Caution? I’m thinking specifically of the aerial shot of yoga-like postures that the lovers contort themselves into.

Lee: That scene, mostly from French Impressionist paintings. Top shots, even in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in the midst of fight scenes, I like to pull up to the top, because it’s more subjective. It’s stimulation for the idea before I go in closer. I don’t know where I take that from; I just feel a need to step back. I guess I take it, in principle, from Epic Theatre—Brecht—detach and then attach again. In the final scene [a close-up of the heroine’s body-imprinted bed linens], I’m taking more from Tibetan Kali Thangka, the religious painting, as a symbol of sacrifice, because [the place where the Tony Leung and Tang Wei characters end up] it’s like Hell. In Hell, you have to have wisdom to see through the pain and the struggle, and scare the evil spirit away. It has to be scary. That’s how Buddhas show their reality to you.

Thompson: You were once quoted as saying, “I trust the elusive world created by movies more than anything else.” Did you mean watching them or making them? I ask because your actress heroine appears to draw on movies as a kind of support system. At one point, she simply wanders around Shanghai going from film to film.

Lee: When [poor student] Wong Chia Chi plays [rich lady] Mak Tai Tai, that’s something she can trust more than her own life. All my life, I’m a drifter and an outsider. There’s not one single environment I can totally belong to. My cultural roots are something elusive—it’s the classic Chinese culture taught by my parents. So the world of making a movie is somehow like that: never really real. In a big way, that’s what Lust, Caution is about. Will she, as Mak Tai Tai, connect?

Thompson: Two years ago, you recorded an introduction for The Criterion Collection DVD of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, a film that had a tremendous impact on you as a student in Taiwan. Does Bergman continue to be an influence—is there a trace of him in Lust, Caution?

Lee: During pre-production, I was told there would be a delay in the art direction, so I got a chance to go to his island to see the man himself. This was a spiritual pilgrimage, to give me the strength to finish this movie. Lust, Caution is more film noir than Bergman. It doesn’t ask where God is. It’s a much more Buddhist, existential deconstruct. When I came back, as a result of my Scandinavian experience, I decided I wanted to use Northern light in the film. From the time you see the diamond that Tony Leung buys for Tang Wei, until the end, that’s Northern light. I’m not sure why I wanted to bring it into Shanghai in the ‘40s; it just worked for me. In the time Bergman and I had together, he mostly asked how I worked with actors. And I said to him, sometimes I hate myself because I tear them apart to see myself. I tear them [he pantomimes ripping something in half] kill them to expose what’s underneath—that’s how I feel about my relationship with actors. Bergman said, “You have to love your actors.” He was a very warm, lovely person. Because of The Virgin Spring, it felt like 30-some years ago the man took my innocence. And then years later, he gave me a very motherly hug. It’s a strange, miraculous, magic power. I never think the way I make movies has any relation to his; he’s like God to me. I will take inspiration. I won’t dare to imitate. But a hug is a hug, filmmaker to filmmaker.

Postscript: At one point in my short meeting with Mr. Lee, I could no longer abstain from asking about a specific image in his masterpiece Brokeback Mountain; after the summer of sheepherding has ended, and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) go their separate ways, Lee composes a shot of Ennis framed from top to toe within the small oval of the driver’s side mirror on Jack’s rickety, black pick-up truck. When I first saw the film, this was one of the instances that reminded me of Walker Evans photography. I asked Lee if either Evans’ or Elliott Erwitt’s work had informed his. He told me that the notion came to him owing to Ledger’s “Western way of walking.” Then he added that the scene following this was his favorite shot, or at least one of his favorites, of anything he’s filmed in his career to date. It’s a question I hadn’t thought to ask. If I had, I might have presumed Lee’s favored moment to be the finale from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Ziyi Zhang’s swan dive off a bridge; her subsequent swim through the clouds, which part to reveal a glorious wide-angle of the mountains behind her. The decidedly earthbound choice of Ledger’s Ennis vomiting in an alley caught me so off-guard I neglected to ask a fairly simple follow-up: Why? Yet it was apparent enough why, particularly in light of Lust, Caution‘s extreme depictions of psychology dictating physicality. Though Ennis cannot fully own up to the self-negating error in letting Jack get away, his body most certainly does, and reacts.

October 2007