Ang Lee and the power of performance
Lee explains the very personal motivations behind "Lust, Caution," the tale of a young woman whose life is transformed, dangerously and thrillingly, by performance.
Seattle Times movie critic
"Lust, Caution" with Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Wei Tang, Joan Chen. Opens Friday at the Egyptian.
Many years ago, long before Ang Lee became the acclaimed maker of films like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Brokeback Mountain," he was an 18-year-old kid falling in love with the art of acting. And those first tentative moments, on a student stage in Taiwan, are what directly led to his newest film: "Lust, Caution," set in 1940s occupied Shanghai, opening Friday at the Egyptian.
Lee discussed his inspirations for the movie in recent conversations at the Toronto International Film Festival and in Seattle, where he was honored at a Seattle International Film Festival tribute on Sunday. Based on a short story by Eileen Chang, "Lust, Caution" is the tale of a young woman whose life is transformed, dangerously and thrillingly, by performance. A student actor, she joins a group of radical students bent on assassinating a powerful political figure and changes her identity to infiltrate his world. Early in the film, we see her after her first stage performance, outside on a rainy night; she's breathless and dazzled by the new art she's mastering.
"I'm like that girl, basically," Lee said, in his soft voice. "She's awakening. She feels the power." He remembered his own walk in the night, in the drizzling rain, after a first performance. "There's something funny about acting — you become empowered," he said. He was "a repressed kid, never allowed to touch art, only academic work. I flunked the college examinations, and I went to art school to prepare for the next year. By chance, I was on stage. I realized the rest of my life. So, when I read that in the short story, I decided to do it."
Though Lee quickly learned, as a young adult, that he'd rather direct movies than act on stage (after moving to the U.S. in his 20s, he studied film production at New York University), his love for acting echoes through his work — Heath Ledger's previously unseen, powerful subtlety in "Brokeback Mountain"; Kate Winslet's exuberance bursting from the screen in "Sense and Sensibility." "I'm still zealous about performing art, except that I don't do it with my own body," he said. "I have to tear actors apart so they do it for me."
He does this through meticulous research, preparing for months before first meeting with actors. (One exception: "Sense and Sensibility," a work-for-hire project for which he was brought on fairly late in the process, still speaking little English. "It was very scary!" he remembered. "I was like 30 years behind everyone.") He gives the actors an "initial pitch," then rehearses to see what the actors give back. "The beginning of a rehearsal is almost like improvisation," he said. "I see what they give me and then I take over, take control."
For "Lust, Caution," his two leading actors came with very different backgrounds and required different kinds of direction. To play Mr. Yee, the subject of the planned assassination, Lee chose Tony Leung Chiu-wai, a veteran of Asian cinema perhaps best known to Western audiences for his love-struck work in "In the Mood for Love." Accustomed to playing the hero, he took on a much darker role.
"With Tony, you know he's going to go through a sophisticated process, so with him you should be more suggestive. I don't give him much information; he will digest himself, do something of his own."
In the role of the young actress turned spy, Tang Wei makes her feature-film debut. Lee's casting team looked at "over 10,000" young actresses before choosing her.
"When I met her, I just believed such a story would happen to someone like her," Lee said. "She feels to me like a fish out of water; she belonged to that era. Also, I see myself as the girl, and I very much identified with her." With Tang Wei, Lee gave advice more directly. "She believes in you when you pitch her an idea ... like a child actor, simple and very direct."
Lee, who tends to alternate English-language projects with Asian films, said he has a different process depending on what language he's working in. "English [-speaking] actors, they seem to have more ideas, it's part of the culture," he said. "When I speak in Chinese, I am more in command. I talk a lot, very demanding. [Chinese-speaking actors] have a more submissive kind of attitude to the director, that's just the culture."
The winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival, "Lust, Caution" recently had its Asian premiere in Taiwan, with Lee in attendance. "It was a very, very special experience in my life," he said. "I was so nervous that day. I'm something of a golden boy there, so emotionally I'm all attached, especially for something like this, a very personal film."
The film also opened in New York this past weekend, setting a quick box-office record for foreign-language films in exclusive runs.
Though he says making this film exhausted him (noting that recreating '40s Shanghai, mostly through sets, is much harder than Jane Austen's England), he's touched by the audience responses, seeing in them a trace of his own first thrill in connecting with an audience, long ago. And he looks forward to his next project, whatever it may be, keeping in touch with his first love. "As far as I'm concerned, I perform with cameras," he said. "I always see myself as performing."
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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