I interviewed Lust, Caution director Ang Lee the morning after he was feted by the Seattle International Film Festival at a tribute hosted by Gary Locke. If you're anything like me, you have a hard time imagining Gary Locke watching a film filled with graphic sex and then chatting up the director. But apparently he did an admirable job.
So I heard our ex-governor (Gary Locke) introduced the screening last night. How did that go?
Were you there?
No, I wasn't. I wish I could've been.
His questions—he was so like a pro. A film critic wouldn't do as good.
[Laughs.] He's had all the public-speaking experience; we just sit behind our computers. What sorts of things did he ask?
Like about the sex scenes, how important that was... He didn't just have a set of questions; he was very reactive too. A total natural.
Well, we'll get to the sex scenes in a minute. First I want to hear about how you chose to adapt this story, and how you originally became interested in Eileen Chang's work.
We're all interested in her work growing up—when you're about a teenager, you start to read her books. She's the most beloved writer in modern Chinese. But not many people read this later work. It's peculiar; it's so not Eileen Chang's kind of writing. She spent 30 years on 28 pages. It's very strange—when I came across the story two or three years ago, I had to check to make sure it's really her. She did most of her famous stories before she was 25—she's a genius—but this was published in her 50s, I believe. The words are more hidden; the prose is very concise. They're written like a movie, unlike her lavish literary writing in earlier days. It's very powerful. To think that we never had a tradition in literature to discuss what women get from sex. And she uses that to examine humanity and relationships in occupied Shanghai, our most glorious war against the Japanese—which was kind of scary for people.
The combination of those two things was scary?
Yeah, what women get from sex, and in World War II—it's like, forget it, I've never seen anything like that! Personally I was very much into the chance to portray something like an actress. I don't think Eileen Chang had that so much in her mind when she wrote this. But I'm a filmmaker, but when I was young I was an actor like the character, and I believe it's by faking something that you actually reach the true self, the hidden self.
So this film is very much about theater...
Reality versus truth. Illusion: Life is illusion; the truth is hidden in the dark... Nothingness is the only thing that doesn't change. What's stable is this void—emptiness, where we come from, where we go to when we die.
It's heavy stuff.
Heavy stuff! Life and death. She might have written it for different reasons, though... She was in love with and married a national traitor. It was a very painful experience, the only love she ever had, and I think that's what killed love for her.
So the story is somewhat autobiographical.
Yes, it is. I think she wrote most of the novels about things she knew. This story was about herself, and that's why it's short. I think she probably wrote it very quickly—this is my theory—and for the next 30 years, she was trying to hide it, change it, make it shorter, and harder and harder to read.
In some ways it's a patriotic story, but in some ways it's a critique of patriotism.
Absolutely. Which has hardly been done in our culture. That's why it's so scary—she was definitely way ahead of her time. Even today, even though I think the time is right, it still felt kind of scary to me. But it's totally ripe. I've run into a few occasions like that. The gay western, for example: The time was ripe. I didn't see that coming—I did it for obscure reasons, for personal reasons—but it just hit the culture. I think this hits the culture too. It's an examination of and disillusion with the way we were brought up.
You've already opened in Taiwan.
It's been open five and a half days now.
But it hasn't screened in China yet.
No, they will postpone, probably until November.
Do you know if you're going to have to make any cuts or edits?
Yes, I delivered a cut already. But I still have to go through more authorities.
What sort of changes did you have to make?
Mostly sex scenes, and the blame for the government, and the way [the main character] tells the traitor [to escape assassination]. They're not against sex or violence, but they don't have a rating system like there is here: All films are general audience. We have no control.
That must be tough with this movie.
Yeah, you get the idea. You get the story and most of the texture, but when you take the sex scenes out...
In some ways it's a different movie.
It weighs differently. It's a different viewing experience.
I'm curious about Brokeback Mountain, which I saw in some ways as an experiment with genre. You had the western, but you also had the mechanics of a melodrama, almost. In this movie, too, it seems like you're mixing genres.
I cannot get out of the genre of melodrama—that's what I was raised with, whether it was a Hollywood movie or a Chinese movie. I just have to use that. If I totally deny it, I'd be being untruthful to myself. In film criticism, they like to stick to strict genres. They like to categorize it. But for the viewers, I think most of them don't care. They just go to a movie. For them, it's about setting a tone so they can accept both, which I think I did. It makes it harder for analysis. But I'm a filmmaker; I'm like the audience. I go with my intuition, and that sometimes means borrowing genres, while being true to my artistic vision.