27 June, 2010

Interview: Ang Lee

Angry love

Ang Lee, who was nominated for European Film Awards Screen International Award For a Non-European Film for Wo hu cang long (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)(2000) and Brokeback Mountain (2005) here talks with James Drew about pushing emotional boundaries for art in his challenging Se, jie (Lust, Caution) (2007), which courted controversy with its graphic depiction of a forbidden affair in 1942 Japanese-occupied Shanghai.

The battle-lines are clearly drawn in World War II Japanese-occupied Shanghai – and young Chinese woman Wong Chia Chi (a startling performance from Wei Tang) is still undercover behind them. Her involvement with a group of drama-society students some years previously has led to her involvement in an ambitious plan to assassinate a top Japanese collaborator, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) whose trust she has gained by posing as Mrs Mak, befriending his wife (Joan Chen) and then drawing him into an affair.

But the emotional transformation that Wong has had to undergo is set to bring terrible consequences...

Taiwanese director Ang Lee, 53, is no stranger to depicting the chains forged by emotion – his previous film, Brokeback Mountain (2005), had won him an Academy Award for Best Director, with its portrayal of two 1960s cowboys, torn by their love for each other that dared not speak its name.

Here, Lee once again took a short story as his inspiration – author Eileen Chang speaks of the man/woman relationship in her story as being about 'the occupier and the occupied' and 'hunter and prey' and this forms the thrust of Lee’s perspective: “I thought the short story was written like a movie, like a detective movie, and I think we’re relatively loyal to her writing.”

As far as the sex scenes were concerned, angry, confrontational congress that takes no prisoners, Lee had his vision clearly defined: “They were really why I wanted to film the story – what wong Chia Chi chooses to do for pariotism, the idea aroused my curiosity, stirred up my demons, if you like.”

But what did the director find the hardest to handle emotionally, the sex or the politics ? “The actual shooting of the sex was very difficult for me, psychologically – the shyness comes in trying to verbalise what I wanted to shoot, particularly when it deals with really deep, disturbed emotion, as is the case in this film.”

After the 12 days that it took to film the sex scenes (“twelve and a half”, Lee interjects), weren’t the actors emotionally drained? “I don’t know about the actors, but I’m talking about me, and yes, definitely,” he chuckles. “At a human level, it was very hard to withstand – I really don’t know where the actors went to find what they did, but it was my responsibility to ensure that there was no emotional damage. There are other directors who might be OK with it, take it easy, but I can’t.”

Lee has quickly established himself as one of the world’s best directors – his back-catalogue includes The Ice Storm (1997), but it was his Wo hu cang long (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) (2000) that is still considered as one of his greatest works, a sprawling period film and martial-arts epic that, not unlike Lust, Caution deals with love, loyalty and loss.

Lee seems attracted to self-destructive characters trying to escape the confines of a given society or mental state, be it latent homosexuals in Brokeback Mountain or even an obsessive scientist in Hulk (2003). Why?

“I think for my next film, I’m going to try and break away from that pattern, but, yes, I’ve been using that since my first movie. I believe it reflects my own life – I’m a Libra, so always looking for what I think is absolutely the right thing to do, or maybe it’s because I’m a scared fellow. I have a tendency to want to please and confirm people, but maybe I have a tendency inside to go against that…I don’t know.

“Setting up obstacles is a good way to examine, cinematically, how characters overcome obstacles, and you see some truth of humanity – maybe that’s just the way that I want to do it. I wish that I had a better way to do it – I’ll keep searching.”

We have no doubt that he will - Ang is currently hard at work on bringing Yann Martel's Man Booker Prize winner Life of Pi to the screen, which is due for release in 2011.

Originally published in Together Magazine.

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