Mr. Yee, is a torturer and killer but never see him on the job, only in the civilized company of his wife and her mahjongg-playing friends, or with the woman from that group who becomes his mistress, with her own deadly mission. Their sex scenes thus become our wordless window into that other side of him, as when he takes Tang Wei's character violently from behind in their first liaison and beats her about the back.
Ang Lee's 'Lust,' built on trust
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
September 23, 2007
NEW YORK — THE first image in Ang Lee's new movie, "Lust, Caution," is of an animal, a watchdog, a German Shepherd. Only after that do we see a human, a man, also standing guard.
When Lee cast Chinese-TV actress Tang Wei to play the lead, in her first movie, he warned her that there would be sex scenes, though he didn't know how explicit they'd be. The novice film actress told him, "I'm leaving myself to you," having no idea how wrenching the experience would be -- that she'd pass out, for instance, when they finished one shoot.
Lee's male lead, Tony Leung, had a different acting profile, a quarter-century of making films that established him as one of Asia's top stars. So Lee felt comfortable loading up the Hong Kong-based Leung with materials to prepare him for his role -- from a Humphrey Bogart film noir to one of Henri Rousseau's moody jungle paintings, "with the predator and prey," Leung noted.
"I think he's the predator," Leung said with a laugh, "I'm the prey."
Setting the trap"LUST, CAUTION," a Focus Features release that opens Oct. 5 in Los Angeles, is set in Shanghai during World War II, when much of China was occupied by the Japanese. Leung plays the local secret service head who is collaborating with them and whose main job is ferreting out -- and killing -- his fellow Chinese who are resisting the invaders. Tang Wei plays a naive student actress recruited by the resistance to seduce him and set him up for execution.
Based on a short story by Shanghai-born Eileen Chang, who lived out the end of her life as a recluse in Los Angeles, the Mandarin-language "Lust, Caution," would seem to have little in common with "Brokeback Mountain," with one key exception -- the central role of sex and how it is potentially deadly for the protagonists in each. Even then, the joining of the gay cowboys in "Brokeback" is brief, and mostly clothed, while "Lust, Caution" has earned an NC-17 rating by using its main characters' sexual positioning to depict the evolution of their relationship, one that ends with their limbs, and more, elaborately entwined.
Lee compares that to how the fight scenes set the tone in his 2000 Oscar winner "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," whose writers, Wang Hui Ling and James Schamus, were teamed once again here. In "Lust, Caution," we know that Leung's character, Mr. Yee, is a torturer and killer but never see him on the job, only in the civilized company of his wife and her mahjongg-playing friends, or with the woman from that group who becomes his mistress, with her own deadly mission. Their sex scenes thus become our wordless window into that other side of him, as when he takes Tang Wei's character violently from behind in their first liaison and beats her about the back.
It would be torture, or rape, were she not there to entice him to lower his guard -- so who's to say that she's not the predator? And while the sex act at first reflects their grim political environment -- an occupier and an occupied -- the body language keeps evolving until their final encounter, when they are contorted in each other's limbs, she curled up like a fetus, suggesting that the polar-opposite predators may have experienced more than they counted on, and "that's frightening to them," Lee says.
"Many purposes in the body language," the director adds.
Both "Brokeback" and this movie are based on stories by women in which "sex, making love, is one intimate way to make connections," Lee notes. "But what makes the difference to me is the theme of the movie . . . and therefore the mood of shooting those scenes are . . . drastically different. . . . 'Brokeback Mountain' is like paradise, the whole movie is like the loss of Eden . . . Something pure and unclear happened on Brokeback and they spend the next 20 years trying to go back [and] finally the tragedy comes."
In "Lust, Caution," by contrast, "the sex scenes here remind me of hell, [going] deeper and deeper toward hell," Lee says. "This is a more realistic approach. Truthful. It's not an illusion like 'Brokeback Mountain' . . . It's like hell, it's sinking . . . The shooting feels like hell to me."
Of course, for all his "caution," to borrow from the movie's title, his female lead did not fathom that fate when she won out in what Lee says was a search that spanned "thousands" of actresses.
In New York before the American rollout of the film, Tang Wei, 27, recalls that she did not know what she was vying for when the five-step audition process began in Beijing. She had gotten her start in theater, once entered a beauty pageant as a lark and was appearing in a TV serial, but not in a glamour part, "just a supporting role, just a friend, a material girl," she says. Speaking at times through a translator and at times in her own still-awkward English, she recalls having her picture taken and being asked to read from some "fake script" before she was called for a second audition -- and met the famous Ang Lee.
She had not seen any of his films, however, and when asked who her favorite director was, she didn't have the guile to butter him up -- she named Ingmar Bergman, mentioning his "Wild Strawberries" and "Through a Glass Darkly." Asked what playwrights she liked, she named another Swede, August Strindberg, whose "Miss Julie" she once performed. Lee posed such questions as, "When you see a beautiful girl, what do you like to know about her?" she says. "He looked at me in the eyes. . . My mother is a Chinese opera singer, so when Ang noticed, he asked me to sing a little song and I sing. Very interesting."
Lee says he sensed that in real life "she might be a fish out of water," which was good. She also shared with him -- and the character -- exhilarating early experiences on stage. In the movie, shy Wong Chia Chi first feels a sense of power when she performs a defiant patriotic play with a student company, at the end of which the audience chants with them, "China will not fall!" When she is recruited to play a life-and-death role -- of seducing the traitorous collaborator -- we sense that she agrees not so much out of love of country but love of the ruse, and the challenge of pulling it off and being part of a cell that, like the acting troupe, is a substitute family.
Lee says he thought back to his first time on stage, as a teenager, when he looked out at the audience "with the glaring eyes through the spotlight [and] could sense their breathing, they're so quiet. And this for sure is not illusion . . . the give and take, what they took from me and what they give back to me, something in the air."
Tang Wei similarly had found stage work intoxicating, and Lee took a risk on casting her without even seeing her in the buff, as she'd eventually have to appear on screen. But before the last auditions they did ask her to show up in a traditional Chinese silk dress. "They call me up the day before and say, 'You better come dressed in qipao.' I don't have any qipao and then I went to a store [and] saw a lot . . . So I bought one. . . . Light blue and then some flower patches . . . It's really tight too."
She had the part, with one catch: She'd have to go through a three-month acting boot camp with Lee and three instructors putting her through such exercises as imagining herself as E.T., an alien discovering everything on Earth for the first time, like what a tea cup is, or water, or how it spills and how gravity works -- discovering all that with a sense of wonder. "At first I didn't understand the meaning," she says. "But later on I understand -- he wants me to forget everything," starting with the acting she'd done before, particularly the broad style that's a staple of television.
And once she was on board, "I didn't watch TV, no newspaper. I had no contact with any of my friends, even my parents. After a while, people asked me, 'Where do you live in Beijing?' And I have to think for a while. I can't really remember Beijing. I used this method to help me to get into this character [and] lived her life for eight months."
All she had to do in her first film was go from playing a wide-eyed student to pretending to be a sophisticated married seductress who must keep her restraint while waiting to see when -- and if -- her comrades will kill her first real lover or if he will find her out first.
"You think I have him in a trap? Between my legs, maybe? You think he can't smell the spy in me?" she asks her resistance handlers in the scene where the tensions finally burst out. "He not only gets inside me, but he worms his way into my heart. I take him in like a slave. I play my part loyally, so I too can get inside him . . . and I will keep going until I can't go anymore. . . . Every time when he finally collapses on me, I think, maybe this is it, maybe this is the moment you'll come, and shoot him, right in the back of the head, and his blood and brains will cover me."
In Lee they trustIN one of his signature roles, Tony Leung -- full name Tony Leung Chiu Wai -- also played a mole who puts his life on the line. He was the cop who infiltrates the mob in "Infernal Affairs," the 2003 Hong Kong thriller copied in Martin Scorsese's English-language "The Departed," with Leonardo DiCaprio playing his role. But in his career, the 45-year-old Leung had never been asked to play a character older -- or uglier -- than he appears in real life.
"Never before," he says. "I think, yeah, it's quite interesting, why not?"
He also had never worked with Ang Lee but quickly learned the ground rules: The script is to be followed as written, not a word improvised. No watching at rushes, either, or checking the monitor to see how you look.
"He wants you to be spontaneous," Leung says. "It's quite difficult for me. I have to change everything, including my expressions, your gesture, your body language, the way I walk. Even my voice. So I have to trust him. I have no choice."
In addition to giving him an old Bogart film ("In a Lonely Place"), Lee had him watch Brando (in "Last Tango in Paris") and Richard Burton (in "Equus"). "I think he wants me to be more masculine," says Leung, whose million-dollar asset is the most engaging of smiles. "I'm used to being very fragile, good-looking. . . . "
As for the walk, that's a staple of Lee's theory of acting -- you "walk into the character." Authoritarian men in '40s China carried themselves differently than men today, and Lee had a model for one of the former, Leung says. "He shows me how his father walks."
Leung says he assumed he was doing well ("If not, he'd say something"), but it took a while for him to relax on the set with Lee. "He always asked, 'How come you're so tense?' 'Because you give me a lot of pressure . . . a lot of things to study. Books, movies, music, paintings.' " The music was Roy Webb's score for the 1942 horror film "Cat People."
Lee explains, "I think good acting, especially an actor at his level, should show complexities and possibilities and ambiguities, many layers. So I like to inspire him some other ways other than giving him very specific directions, but rather giving him possibilities . . . show him the mood . . . Sometimes you'll tell them literally what to do, what it means, sometimes you just confuse them and see what comes out of it. But I won't confuse them with irrelevant things.
"I don't enjoy torturing actors, although sometimes I have to . . . to get good results."
While the veteran Leung quickly settled into the demands of the months of shooting in China and Malaysia, Lee never stopped worrying about his young leading lady. Though "Crouching Tiger" also spotlighted a newcomer, Ziyi Zhang, she wasn't counted on to carry that film. With Tang Wei, "Every day she's in my mind, how to get the best for her, out of her, and not to ruin her, keep her healthy," Lee says, "get her out of it with sanity."
Wei says there were nights she slept only an hour until she got so tired "it's a little bit easier." The time she fainted was after a scene in which she and Leung are in a car and he grabs her head under his arm. Sometimes they shot her scenes time and again until she got just what Lee wanted, whether by design or pure luck.
Leung didn't lose sleep -- just his appetite. "Especially when I did some emotional scenes like when I was holding her in the car and when I do love scenes," he says, "and we walk out like ghosts."
But now they're through it, and through their first red carpet march with Lee too, at the Venice Film Festival, where "Lust, Caution" took the top prize, the Golden Lion. And the two stars are in sync on one point -- they'd like nothing more than to work with him again.
Lee has been saying for a decade, since "The Ice Storm," that he needs to do something easier, less wrenching, not so heavy. Why not now?
He insists he has no firm project but would love to have a happy ending again, as in 1995's "Sense and Sensibility," as long as it could be done full-heartedly, without cynicism. Here's his gut instinct, then, for what he'll do next: "a romantic comedy."