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PostPosted: Thu Nov 29, 2007 4:37 am    Post subject: Caution, Ang Lee crossing: a roundtable with the "Lust,

Caution, Ang Lee crossing: a roundtable with the "Lust, Caution" director and star

Ang Lee Ė the future of Hollywood-Chinese cinema? The filmmaker certainly displayed the analytical acuity and actorly touch required for the position, as he was interviewed about his film, Se, jie (Lust, Caution), shortly after its October release, alongside his star, newcomer Wei Tang, at the Ritz-Carlton in SF. Hereís a portion of the roundtable interview with various other journalists, with less shrift given to the questions and more to Leeís thoughtful, rambling responses. Spoiler alert: major plot points discussed.

Q: May I start with the obvious question? Why did [Wang Jiazhi, played by Wei Tang] do it? Why did she make this decision to let him go?

Ang Lee: That is the question. [Chuckles]

Q: Is it one that can be answered?

AL: No, I think itís something deep inside - in the murkiest, most sensitive place, at the heart. Itís very hard to detect. You see how she struggles. How can she let China down? I donít know. When I read the short story, I thought, is it the diamond? Is she bourgeois? Is it because she had a good time in sex? Does she think she loves him? Does she think he loves her? All those things. Obviously she made a big mistake but a very sympathetic mistake, I think. So challenging, so frightful to recognize this. Being Chinese, to put female feelings and sexuality and their point of view amid war, the holy war against the Japanese in a patriarchal societal structure, itís unbelievable, the courage from the writer [Eileen Chang]. I couldnít believe she wrote that. I just couldnít believe it and for a long time I thought thereís no way anyone will make this movie. But then it just came calling. Yeah, itís a profound question to me that doesnít really have an answer. She just did it. Personally I think she did the wrong thing. It was very painful.

Q: What did you think of decision, Wei?

Wei Tang: She understands everything and she controlled herself. She controlled her life, and thatís good.

Q: Youíve both acted on stage but you [Lee] abandoned acting when you began directing. Would you say you have an affection for actors or suspicion or all of the above?

AL: Yes. [Laughs] I have sympathies and sometimes I also have sympathies because I probably know where they come from. Itís harder to get away from my scrutiny. Sometimes I feel like I have to judge them, push them this way and that way to see the truth myself. Sometimes I feel like I tear them apart. I sort of know how to both direct with and without a camera so to speak, to see kind of myself and expose myself to the audience, and I sort of hate to do that. Itís a big burden on my shoulders. I canít stop it.

But at the same time I see [the actors] as a part of myself - endearing and close to my heart. I see them as one person, as myself. And this did happen with her and Tony [Leung] and Wang Lee-Hom Ė at least with the three of them, I feel we were breathing together. They feel a certain way, I feel a certain way, and I just sync with them.

WT: I think every character is from him. And Mr. Yee [Leungís character] and the student [Wangís character] - the three all come from him. And in my character, Iím just like on the stage. What he wants me to do, when I canít do it, heís so angry. Because he is good on the stage, a very good actor. And when he thinks Iím not good enough, with the emotions, he asks for more and more and more. One day, his birthday, he wanted me to cry. I always can cry but I couldnít cry.

AL: That day I was so uptight she couldnít cry.

Q: Thereís some powerfully erotic material in the film Ė explain how you conceived that?

AL: I think I took the hint from the short story. I never read in Chinese literature what women get from sex. Not only did [Chang] do that but she even suggested that the way to get to menís heart is through the stomach and for women itís through the vagina. Itís that clear. So how can I not miss it? I think [Chang] did whateverís shocking to the literature and through her perspective examined patriotism, the big ideas.

All three of us, me and the two actors, are fanatic actors. We just want to see what an ultimate performance would be like. [Wang Jiazhi] has to put up a performance to withstand the scrutiny of an interrogator, to survive. And he wants to see the truth, even if that means inflicting pain.

I donít think the sex is something thatís there just for sexís sake. It generates chemistry, which triggers feelings and intimacies, and thatís pretty profound material. Theyíre both in denial of true love and need it desperately. So when I get two actors and they get on the bed, in very private shooting circumstances, would I let it sleep and regret it for rest of my life? So we decided to just jump in.

I think those scenes are extremely intense for me. The really sexy part is the scenes that are outside of the sex scenes like when they seduce each other. To me theyíre more sexy. So lust is lust for sex, lust for life.

Q: Those were amazing scenes. Of course you knew if you put the scenes in there youíd get the NC-17 rating. Is that the great price to pay?

AL: Itís kind of crazy if you think cautiously. When I did that scene I didnít care about that anymore. I just want to do the best thing Ė youíre in another zone. We worry about that later. Maybe the movie doesnít need that and itís just crazy, or maybe itís something great and never been done before, maybe. So just the maybe is good enough for us to jump in. I didnít weigh it. Just tried to do the best.

Q: Are the actors actually having sex?

AL: Itís a hard question to answer. [Laughs] I said once to a journalist, ďDid you see the movie? Why do you ask?Ē

Q: Itís a symbol of your success that people ask. Itís so vivid.

AL: The thing is Iíve never seen anything like that myself, hardly seen that, because youíve seen hot, steamy scenes with good performers. But not such intensity. Or you see real sex in porno films but you donít have dramatic motivation or exquisite performances. Itís just something so special. The rating, I donít know. At that time I saw it as other peopleís problem. We make the movie and support it. They donít force me to sell my house, my children, so I just keep on going.

Q: What should we know about China at that time? What did you know?

AL: Some overheard knowledge and when I start preparing the shoot I still did some research. Books, I talked to older people, 85 and above.

Q: Was your own family affected by WWII and the occupation?

AL: Yes, my motherís family was living in Beijing under occupation, and they were collaborators. And my father went with Chiang Kai-shek to the west Ė he was part of the resistance. So I heard the story of both sides.

Q: The relationship between the two lead characters Ė itís hard not to look at it as a political allegory. And also an allegory for men and women in general. Were you conscious of bringing that up?

AL: It was set up there. I didnít even have to work for it. I donít see myself making political films. Itís such a crucial part, important part of our lives; you just canít get away from it. Thatís how I see it. Yeah, during the first reading, I knew, the politics and sex - you canít get away from it.

Q: What does it say about men and women and how they act with each other in general?

AL: The occupier and being occupied. Giving yourself in and falling in love with occupier, though itís hard to say whoís the occupier. On surface heís the dominant one but think about her job and having permission to track him down and kill him. Sheís the killer. To me that culminates in the sex scenes. He really gets confused. Whoís manipulating who?

Q: Your films are so full of thwarted love. Why are you so attracted to those narratives?

AL: Iím not attracted to it. I think Iím obsessed! (Laughs) I donít really know what love is. I think if itís definable itís too small for me. When I think of love, romantic love, I think itís so grand, so mysterious, if we knew about it, weíd stop writing love stories 3,000 years ago. Weíd be all done and we just follow rules. Itís not so.

I guess: make it grander; make it impossible, at times even doomed. It makes you humble. Thatís my attitude towards romantic love. You just donít know. Itís weird. As far as Iím concerned, at heart, this is a really WEIRD love story. Itís really, really weird. (Chuckles) And itís a grand one, I think, to me.

Q: One of intriguing things is Wei Tangís character is a good actor and when you go into the sex scenes you donít know if sheís acting. How did you go about directing that?

AL: I think her main talent is almost like that of a child actor with gradually sophisticated acting skills. She never looses the innocent part. When I described a situation, she went into that zone, and the rest was taken care of, pretty much. So thatís her real talent. If I saw any signs that she was out of the zone or doing something mixed, I pulled her back. So itís a collaboration, itís also about how camera portrayed her: basically sheís a good girl doing a bad girl. The bad girl is interesting and exciting, and the good girl is boring. So two parts. I think anybody, especially actors, can relate to that quite naturally. Itís not that hard, I think. If you have that in mind and just tell them to not get excitedÖthe thing is to not overact.

Q: How did you choose your two actors?

AL: Tony, I knew right away. Heís the best. I was lucky. Just buy him a dinner. With [Wei Tang], we donít want to give the story out too much. First we talk. We screen-proof a thousand actresses to get to her. They just read some scenes, phony scenes, not even the script.

Q: What were the scenes you were thinking of when doing role?

AL: When I read her, it was the scene from tailor shop. That was kind of the final thing.

WT: [After conferring with the translator] We had three months training, and he gave me a lot of information about the character and the film, books. A lot of things to read and remember, and then how to walk, stand, and eat - even to think. I think itís very important, because most of the things were about how to perform. He wanted me to put a very pure face to the character but to throw away all the old ways before the film that I learned from my school. [Laughs] And from before school. After three months of training we had the rehearsal and covered all the movements we were planning, how to move head and hair.

But I never I thought, in the beginning, that I was nervous. They were very professional and I think with the sex scenes there were only four people, except for Tony and me, in the room. I just believed in myself.

Q: [With this film and Brokeback Mountain] youíve chosen two short stories. What is there in a short story that you can turn into epics?

AL: Elements. You know, you spend months and months writing the script, but what are the elements? Is it rich enough to go through the journey? Thatís what Iím seeing in those materials.

Q: In this particular short story by Eileen Chang what did you see?

AL: Well performance. Things about acting, performed not only as a stage play and parts but in general, in life. A big part about life is about performance. Think about sex - how much of it is about performance? To me thatís very important. Thatís what I do, too. So the illusion and disillusion is something I know I can dig into a lot. And even though itís short, you have enough indications of the story points - the theater group, the Chinese resistance, the Japanese collaboration and the government. How do they get from point one to two, up till when she loses virginity? How do they respond? Itís not written there - just a little bit - but you can imagine that. You can elaborate on that a lot. Itís full of potentials, and then the part in Shanghai. How do they go about that relationship? Itís very minimal, whatís written there, but you can feel the wealth of possibilities.

With Brokeback it was the story of 20 years. With each line you could feel what you felt in five years - each time you see them. Sometimes you can read book, and it can be described in three sentences, and sometimes in poetry Ė whoosh - you can expand your imagination. I think Iím intrigued by the possibility of the short story. [Changís story] is underdeveloped - I think she avoided a lot of details I really needed to know. It was written very smartly, actually. The way you go into it, itís not easy.

Q: Were you tempted to include her omniscient narrator?

AL: I think I did. Itís a very strange structure, I must say - the short story. We follow the girlís perspective and then at the end after sheís killed, it switches the narrative to Mr. Yee. I donít know if thatís legal! (Laughs) Or kosher. Itís totally unkosher. But itís very effective. It seems like the ghost of Wang Jiazhi has come to the heart of the man. Writing in a very ghostly way Ė itís haunting. Curious and haunting. I think I did inherit that but in a cinematic way. It does end with Mr. Yee carrying the death scene on - these six students - to him opening the curtain, carrying the weight of her killing and ends with the reflection of the shadow on the empty blanket.

Q: You donít depict their deaths or his atrocities.

AL: Yeah, that would be too real! That would be too objective rather than subjective. It has to be switched to more internal feelings that a man has to carry. You almost feel, living is painful and dying is a relief.

Q: Thereís pleasure and pain in creating art. Whatís most purely pleasurable part of it and what tortures you in the process?

AL: I wish there was only pleasure! They say, no pain, no gain. What you gain is pleasure but what youíre going through is quite torturous. Iím still kinda in that, sometimes having a sleepless night, and in the morning, I start crying because I feel like Iím in Mr. Yeeís torture chamber.

Q: Thereís a violent scene of a man brutally murdered. How much came from the story?

AL: That was James [Schamusís] idea as a filmmaker and producer. For the Chinese writer and myself, who so revere Eileen Chang, we just wouldnít change anything. So the middle section is really weak - three years pass and nothing is in short story. I had a feeling that Eileen Chang was writing about herself. So to take her life story and try to fit it into this is really wimpy and not effective.

I think the killing scene was a great idea, in developing other characters and what that would impact on her, to carry to the second half. Itís almost like a welcome to the second half. Not only for the shock value but that scene is what I call Bar Mitzvah. Itís her Bar Mitzvah to me. They let the girl lose virginity and the boys have to do their part. The poor guy walks into the wrong place at the wrong time and challenges their manhood, and they just have to deliver.

Thatís war. They taught us about war, the glorious fighting - nobody taught us killing someone is a crime. Itís very difficult to execute and itís very hard to kill someone. Itís gruesome. I think it should be shocking. People glorify a story such as this one - a woman sacrifices her body for her country and they donít tell you the feeling of sex and what they went through. Itís a legitimate and very good idea to open up the second half, which is about disillusion, about the way weíre brought up.

Q: You have a reputation for being very meticulous and precise Ė whatís the downside of that?

AL: I think thereís nothing wrong with preparation but if that means no intuition, thatís no good. It kills freshness. I do the research and forget about it. Thatís only to prepare yourself to be ready to react to the situation.

Q: For you to go back to shoot a film in the Chinese language - what did that mean to you? Youíre taking us into an Asian world, a western audience. What will they get out this?

AL: Thereís a Chinese tempo and vibe. This dramatic movie is less universal, unlike Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which is a martial-arts fantasy tale. Itís less universal. But I believe the emotion and what I deal with is universal. I think going back to my cultural roots makes me more demanding. It has to leave a trace or mark. I think another mission is to introduce Chinese drama, something more authentic, less fantasy, as part of a cultural exchange. It has a different tempo and complexity and layers. I think that people who have to read subtitles will miss a lot, because you miss a lot of the acting, the great performances, and also the political information. You can understand it but itís hard to feel for it. But I donít want to reduce the volume and essence of what can potentially be a good movie.
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