Ang Lee discusses “Lust, Caution” with Jennifer Merin

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In “Lust, Caution,” director Ang Lee returns to the Chinese language and his Chinese heritage to explore a time in history experienced by his parents’ generation.

The film, based on a short story by beloved Chinese author, Chang Ailing (Eileen Chang), takes place in Hong Kong and Shanghai during the period of the Japanese occupation during World War II.

The plot revolves around a young woman who is recruited for her university’s theatrical productions and subsequently agrees to use her performance skills to seduce and destroy high-ranking Chinese bureaucrat who is collaborating with the Japanese.

“This movie is very personal for me. Not only because I’m going back to Chinese language film. The characters in the movie, I find myself directing them with my personal knowledge, with feelings and things inside of me that I’m not aware of: Wong Chia Chi–she’s a performer and that‘s how she touches her true self. That’s like me making movies–playing to touch my true self. I identify with Kwang, the student leader, because that’s how I lead my life. And Mr. Yee–that’s the secret self, I don’t know what the hell that is, but he really attracts me. And Chinese actors, they’re totally devoted to the director, take everything you give them. So after a while, I felt the three of us became myself. So it feels very personal,” says Lee.

“Chinese language film is my cultural root, where the experience is quite personal–unlike here which is an adapted culture. Deep inside the heart, it’s the same, but texture-wise, it’s very personal. And also I have this will to see what my parents’ generation is. What I was told by my parents was romanticized by them–and things have changed so much that I felt duty-bound to retrieve from my memory what the generation at that time looks like. So, that feels very personal.< MERIN: As you describe them, the three lead characters sound like they might be different aspects of yourself. Do you feel that way? LEE: No I cannot say that. I don’t feel that split personality. And the Mr. Yee part, I don’t even know him--but maybe he’s my darker side. But I’m very attracted to that character. But each character, for dramatic need, all have to be individuals. I say they are in essence, but then you have to reach the reality of that character and make it a person. You have to reach them, they have to have their own inner conflicts and different dimensions of their own characters. So, no I don’t think I take parts of me--that would be too simple. But that’s the beginning and the end of it, and when they play it out, they have to do their homework, their development and reach how their characters are. MERIN: You shot in Shanghai. Was it difficult to work there? LEE: I think the Oscar helped me. The Academy Award is respected there, even though they banned the film and cut my acceptance speech. But I think they are proud of me--even if I grew up in Taiwan, in the old-fashioned way. I think a lot of film people tried to make it work.< MERIN: How did you recreate the city as it was during that period?< LEE: We did it by bits and pieces. The city was cooperative, and we used computer remove some objects, so that’s a big part of it. We had the biggest set--it was two blocks. They invited me to shoot there and they built everything for me as I mapped out. They’re very proud of it. But I had to dress it out. We spent a lot of time on that-- it got me over budget and time. I wanted to show how hard it was for foreigners at that time--English, Americans and others will be sent to concentration camps, since the war breaks out. To explain to the western audience why there are so many foreigners there. And to explain to the Chinese audience why there are so few. (He laughs). MERIN: You don’t focus much on the Japanese…. LEE: This story happened in war time, but is not about physical war. I think it important to show the oppression, what happened in Shanghai during those years--very peaceful, prosperous, life goes on and the Japanese keep a kind of polite distance in downtown area, kept the atrocity in the outskirts. But I have to show their presence--like when the Chinese has to bow. The humiliation. The occupying. The oppression. Even the check point. But that’s not the most important thing in the movie. The most important thing is the drama between the man and woman--portraying their relationship with the backdrop that China is occupied MERIN: Why do you emphasize their sexual relationship? LEE: To me, that is the core emotion and theme of the movie. To me, it’s the ultimate performance. My experience with the actors, how deep they go into it. Sex is performance, after all. And Wong’s such a good actress she passes the scrutiny of the interrogator. They’re so frightened, and it’s so real. They have to deny it. I think that’s the movie, the ultimate acting job. Body language. The test to directors. To the actors and, in some ways, to the audience. I was in an ideal situation. People would do anything--I would ask anything and it would happen. I got the best actors. I just had something in the back of my head--if I don’t do this, it will be a shame. (He laughs). And it’s what the movie deserves. Otherwise it’s exploiting them. I shot those scenes in the earliest part of shooting, so they’re really, for me, the emotional core of the movie. And, they feel honest. Most other sex scenes are about covering what should not be seen. That feels very technical to me. But we didn’t want to do that because sexual honesty is very important to the story, and to me. The actors were willing to try the ultimate performance, so to speak.< MERIN: Why did you make this film?< LEE: The short story strikes me hard. It’s frightening. In Chinese literature, I’ve never seen what a woman gets from sex. Chang Ailing is our most beloved writer. And she’s daring to put that sex against the backdrop of the macho Japanese in this shameful time. It’s very evoking and introspective. I resisted for a long time--asking what are the Chinese going to think about this? Saying I can’t do this. Until one day, I think I have to face that inner fear.< MERIN: Is one of Ang Lee’s anthems? LEE: Yes. I think connecting with each other is not difficult, but true connecting is difficult. The need for privacy conflicts with the nature of relationship, our needing each other for companionship, for security, not being lonely. So that conflicting factor is one of my main interests in dramatic storytelling. In examining humanity. So it’s not that they can’t talk to each other, they have difficulty to reveal the true desire. I have no difficulty making a movie that communicates with people, but when I say do a naked scene that’s difficult--that’s disconnecting, and I try to connect with that. So it’s all about examining humanity. Smooth situation, you never see the truth. It has to be distorted. Then you feel there’s something not connecting, and let’s face it. I think that’s what my movies like to do. MERIN: There are a couple of lines in the film that I found ironic and strange-- one of them is about the director when she says (He laughs)-- you’re laughing, so I see you know exactly what I’m asking--when she says directors only think about themselves. Where does that line come from? LEE: Oh it’s just me having a cheap shot. (He laughs). And, then, the student director, as a director, has to keep a distance to keep the purity of ideas. He represents that. And that’s what she means. So that’s where that comes from. (He laughs). MERIN: And what about the line: movies are for people who have nothing else to do with their time. LEE: Oh that’s from the Chinese writer--I didn’t write that line. But, actually, that line is just a set up for him to say “I don’t like the dark.” I think people read into that line too much. (He laughs). MERIN: I guess so, because you’re laughing, so it must have been mentioned before…. LEE: Yes, it has. Well, also, that’s man woman talk back then. It’s very patronizing way of talking to a woman back then, and women use that to amuse their men--yea I got nothing important to do that’s why I like movies. You got important things to do--maybe that’s why you don’t go for movies. Anything emotional I found to be very womanly. So that’s why it’s a kind of patronizing line. And it’s a figure of speech that leads to the next thing. So it’s a very period line. So, don’t read too deep, unless you want to use it for something else… MERIN: No, just curious. There are many nuances in the film, and I’d like to know your thoughts behind them. There are also many shots in the film that are signature Ang Lee shots… LEE: Like? MERIN: Like her lipstick on the glass, for which there is a refrain, as well. LEE: Yes… MERIN: How would you say you use those shots? What do they mean to you? LEE: Show a shot once, it’s an image. The second time you see it, it’s almost like a lemon--you start to think. It’s almost like emotion. I think it’s very sensuous, the lipstick on the glass when you see it. The second time it’s something else. It evokes feelings. I was aware of that kind of filmmaking, I think, starting from “The Ice Storm.” When you show something, you didn’t really pay attention, but you remember. The second time you see it, it has some meanings. And from time to time, I like to use that. Especially when you clue yourself to certain characters. MERIN: Other than the lipstick on the glass, did you use that technique another time in this film? LEE: Not too much. MERIN: But when you see the lipstick on the glass, you hold there for a sufficient amount of time for the audience to it means something--that there will be a payoff in the future, that the shot has that kind of weight, right? LEE: Yes. LEE: (We both laugh) but this kind of technique is beyond description. You cannot verbalize it. If it doesn’t do anything for you or for me, I wouldn’t use it. Because that would be gimmicky. If it does something for me, and there’s no word for it--sometimes I use it because of that. And sometimes I consciously use it, like in “The Ice Storm.” because that’s part of the themes, the echoing themes. I like to use similar shots. Especially on the parents and children parallels--I use a lot of reflections. So, that’s technique of the film. But for this one, no. I don’t design a whole movie around that, but when I feel like I want to spend some time with a character, I do that. I believe it does something. MERIN: Oh yes, it does. LEE: That’s why you asked… MERIN: Yes, that’s why I asked. You mentioned that this is very personal because it brought you back to the Chinese language. Do you think that you think differently in English and in Chinese, and if so, how do you think differently in the two languages? LEE: I couldn’t tell. In the old days I used to translate in my head, but the more and more movies I make, it changes. Directing something like “Brokeback,” mostly I think in English. Because the material comes in English--and it’s harder for me to talk in Chinese. In fact, with some things I wanted to say in Chinese, it took me some time to figure out how to say them. So most of the time, I think in English. But there are things--like phrases: this picture, this shot, this moment are like Chinese than I will think in Chinese, and I will try to make that into an American movie. That happens a lot, too. But for Chinese, I pretty much think in Chinese, unless something is quoted from another language. MERIN: Because, although I don’t speak Chinese, I think that language somehow structures thought and that very much effects relationships between people. So, I’m wondering whether the relationships between the characters in your English language films differ from the relationships between the characters in your Chinese language films in a very subtle way that’s governed by language…. LEE: It’s possible. But I don’t go into my head and analyze. As my English gets better, I do sense that I get smarter. (he laughs). MERIN: In what way? LEE: Because I think in Chinese, the figure, the sign itself is sensed on one side of the head--I read it somewhere before--and English and the romance language, the system is on the other side of the head. It’s like thought related to relationship, you use one side of your head. The other language uses the other. All of a sudden when your language gets better and you start to change, and it become like one and you don’t need to go through translation, it feels like the world, and the understanding of relationships just opens, just clears up for you. I did have that feeling sometimes. I think that’s a benefit. MERIN: I should say so! You’re talking about right brain, left brain…right? LEE: Yeah. MERIN: How interesting… LEE: Yeah, it is. It’s not only from one to another, shifting. People ask how I shift. It’s not like I have a map in my head…but it feels like I’m wiser all of a sudden. MERIN: You’re unique in experiencing that. So even if you’re not analyzing that, still it’s there in your mind, and the experience of it is there…and must have an effect. LEE: Well, if you look at it in writing--take the way this writer describes relationship. It’s about occupying. Man woman relationship is the ultimate occupying. From man to women and woman to man. That’s something to think about. And then she says Japanese occupying China in terms of politics and sex. They kind of echo each other. When you read that, it’s in Chinese. And I would go into that kind of zone, especially when I direct sex scenes--and that would ripple on to the whole movie. But with Annie Proulx, that’s something else. Sometimes I do use one to benefit the other, if I think it’s of help. Like the words annie Proulx writes leave you a lot of space. That’s something the Chinese are expert at--I think the west deals with mass, the Chinese more about what’s in between the space. Whereas the west has space and the way she writes, it’s elegiac and all, and the way she spaces words you realize there’s a lot of space in the west, and the cowboys don’t really talk to each other. And how they’re spacing themselves. And there’s the space between the language. And that becomes the game--body language. So, being Chinese, helped understand annie Proulx. And helped me understand the sense of duality in “Sense and Sensibility” with Jane Austen--that was very quick. (He laughs). But if you want me to go study the dry sense of humor, in English, it’s harder. But with yin and yang, you see the duality and get to it quicker. But I don’t analyze this… MERIN: No, but it’s there for you…and you’ve explained it very well. It’s not LEE: It’s trying out. If it works or not, through exercise. If it works I use it. MERIN: But this is a quality that makes your direction unique--it’s something you have that other directors don’t have. And that’s why I’m so grateful to your for speaking about it with me and providing this insight into your work. LEE: Thank you. I hope that’s a good quality. MERIN: I think it’s a great quality--without any doubt. I’d be very foolish to mention it, were it not.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).