My blog has moved!

You should be automatically redirected in 5 seconds. If not, visit
and update your bookmarks.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Anging with Lee

Interview with Ang Lee in today's Day and Night magazine

(Can be viewed at here)

Any new work from Taiwanese director Ang Lee is now treated as a cinematic ‘event’. His proven track record, and intriguing versatility, builds a fervent degree of excitement and anticipation around his movies.

Indeed, Lee’s latest movie, the intensely erotic WWII espionage thriller Lust/Caution, was amongst the main talking points of the Venice Film Festival last September, though not for wholly positive reasons. Lee’s movie won the festival’s highest accolade, the Golden Lion (the second time he claimed that gong in the past three years), a decision that perplexed many Western critics, who were sharply divided over the movie.

In person, Ang Lee is famously soft-spoken. In fact, he’s too soft-spoken. On the day I meet him in London’s Soho Hotel, he communicates in such a polite, but barely audible way that I’m afraid my tape recorder won’t pick up his voice. He’s dressed in a neat shirt and cargo pants, kind of like a kindly university tutor (an apt description seeing as his father wanted him to be a teacher).

But though he may have a speaking voice that carries all the bombast of an angel skipping on a fluffy cloud wearing cotton wool shoes, Lee is not short of anything to say, particularly about his latest project. Set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai at the height of the Second World War, Lust/Caution focuses on a young college student, Wong Chia Chi (played by newcomer Tang Wei in a startlingly assured debut), who joins a patriotic drama group, and slowly becomes involved in a radical covert plot to assassinate a top Japanese collaborator, Mr Yee (Tony Leung). Wong is chosen to befriend Yee’s wife (Joan Chen) and lure him into an affair, setting in motion a complex game of deception, lust and murder.

Lust/Caution is Lee’s first movie since winning an Oscar (and 19 other prizes) for Best Director for his ‘gay shepherd’ love story, Brokeback Mountain in early 2006. Following the phenomenal success of that cultural landmark of a movie, every film script in the world must have landed on Lee’s desk. So what drew him to return to a non-English language project for the first time since his breathtaking martial arts epic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2001)?

“I’ve wanted to do this movie for a while, but I was afraid to do it,” Lee explains in his charmingly hesitant English. “I think I’m on a run of impossible romances for these couple of movies! But it’s very natural for me to do this after Brokeback, because in my mind, they’re both connected. Brokeback is like heaven or paradise, an idea of love that’s whimsical and pure, while Lust/Caution is like hell. You don’t want to go down there, and if you do, you can only hope to come out alive.

“I think winning the Oscar helped me to get this made, especially because it’s almost impossible to get a permit to film in China. They allowed me to do it, without, of course, knowing what I’d do with the sex scenes, but I had a lot of support.”

Be that as it may, Lee still had to cut 9 minutes from the movie for its release in mainland China, but that’s censorship he can live with. “Everyone talked about how much the Chinese authorities cut from the movie, but didn’t talk about how miraculous it was that this got made there in the first place,” Lee says graciously.

The movie has attracted most of its pre-release attention for the aforementioned sex scenes, which resulted in Lust/Caution being stamped with a dreaded R rating in the United States. The love scenes are indeed very graphic, naturalistic and prolonged, a narrative move that at first seems at odds with the themes of sexual and emotional repression that permeate Lee movies such as the Jane Austen adaptation Sense and Sensibility (1995) and 1997’s The Ice Storm, his sharp and insightful dissection of suburban America that prefigured many of the themes of the later, and more successful, American Beauty (1999).

But, as Lee explains, there was a very deliberate styling to the three main sex scenes that made them crucial markers in the story’s bleak progression.
“Each scene had its purpose,” Lee says. “The first appears to be violent, because it’s all about the agony of lost innocence, and of how the male character, Yee, is losing his control and how the girl, Wong, is usurping it. That leads to the second scene, which for me is about scrutiny, digging for truth. He insists on looking at her. When Wong’s in bed, she’s doing the ultimate performance as her character and as an actress, because she has to withstand the scrutiny of the interrogator to gain his trust. As for the third scene, they’re in hell. They don’t know where they are at that point because they are lost to distrust and fear.”

The movie also gave the 53-year-old Lee the opportunity to delve into China and Taiwan’s, how can I put it, complicated history. “That period in Shanghai is not discussed,” Lee explains. “All sides, nationalist and communist, in Taiwan and China prohibit the teaching about that puppet wartime government which they both think is a national disgrace. So it’s good to fill that gap, to make some remark on it to pass onto history.

“The thing that fascinated me about that period in Shanghai was the collision of world cultures in the city. It was the Paris of Asia in terms of fashion, food, literature and language. Shanghai was developed by foreigners, and because the city was safe, four million people crowded into it. It was almost sickly over-prosperous. It was a very strange time.”

As for the modern resonances in the story – violent resistance against a foreign occupation: sound familiar? - Lee says: “I didn’t do it for that reason, but it’s hard not to make the connection that things have not changed that much. It’s quite sad.”

Lee’s next project will be in English, a relationship comedy-drama called A Little Game, the details of which are still secret. But having reached the top of his profession, and amassed critical and audience respect the world over, I ask Lee what have been the biggest disappointments in his career so far.

He pauses for a moment, before replying: “I don’t think there have been disappointments, not on my part anyway. When I make a movie I always do my best. In that regard, once it’s done, I’m proud of my effort, proud that I managed a crew and made a film.

“I’ve been surprised by things I did not see coming. I have no idea why people just did not go see Ride with the Devil [his 1999 western starring Tobey Maguire]. Also with Hulk [the panned 2003 comic book adaptation, a remake of which is currently in the works with a new director and cast]: why did people have a problem with it? If I knew I’d have probably corrected it. There’s just no telling how people will react. Why did Chinese audiences think twice about Crouching Tiger? That beats me, I don’t know why they’re so cynical towards that movie.”

What about the fact that Brokeback Mountain was beaten at the last minute to the Best Picture Oscar by melting-pot drama, Crash, in one of the biggest upsets in the awards’ history? Lee smiles. “I was pissed for one night,” he says. “We’d won everything before that, so it was a shocker. I congratulated the Crash team the next day.” He laughs: “That might be the closest I came to ‘disappointment!’”

No comments: