August 26, 2007
Love as an Illusion: Beautiful to See, Impossible to Hold
By DENNIS LIM
IN “Brokeback Mountain,” the 2005 critical hit and cultural flashpoint that won Ang Lee an Academy Award for best director, love is a haunting, elusive ideal briefly attained but forever out of reach. Mr. Lee’s new movie, “Lust, Caution,” which will have its premiere at the Venice International Film Festival this week, is also a tragic melodrama, one in which the lovers are up against forces beyond their control, but it takes a harsher view of romance. This time love is a performance, a trap or, cruelest of all, an illusion.
“ ‘Brokeback’ is about a lost paradise, an Eden,” Mr. Lee said this month, taking a break from a final sound-mixing session in Manhattan. “But this one — it’s down in the cave, a scary place. It’s more like hell.”
Based on a short story by the popular Chinese writer Eileen Chang, “Lust, Caution” is set in the early 1940s during the Sino-Japanese war, mostly in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. The heroine, Chia Chi (Tang Wei), belongs to a university drama troupe plotting to assassinate a collaborator named Mr. Yee (Tony Leung). Assigned to seduce the target, an official in the puppet government, she falls into a desperately physical affair, driven (as the title suggests) by both passion and suspicion. The cast also includes Joan Chen as the grasping, gossipy Mrs. Yee, and Wang Lee-hom, the American-born Asian pop star, as the student ringleader. (The film, which will also be shown at the Toronto International Film Festival next month, is set for release on Sept. 28 by Focus Features.)
Mr. Lee said that when he first read Chang’s story, which she started writing in the ’50s then obsessively revised and eventually published in 1979, it struck him in much the same way as the Annie Proulx story that was the basis for “Brokeback Mountain.” “At first I thought there’s no way I can make it a movie,” he said. But he couldn’t stop thinking about it. “There’s a point where I feel this is my story. It becomes a mission.”
Like Mr. Lee, 52, who was born in Taiwan but has lived and worked in the United States since the ’80s, Chang had a foot in two worlds. Her celebrated early stories and novellas, written in the ’40s, evoked the heady, glamorous fusion of East and West, old and new, that characterized Shanghai before the Communist takeover.
After the 1949 revolution she fled to Hong Kong and then to America, where she continued to write and translate but became ever more reclusive, even as her fame grew throughout the Chinese diaspora. She died in Los Angeles in 1995. Her work has been adapted for the screen by the Hong Kong directors Stanley Kwan (“Red Rose, White Rose”) and Ann Hui (“Love in a Fallen City”).
For Mr. Lee, an astute observer of the warping power of sexual desire and repression (not just in “Brokeback Mountain,” but also in films as disparate as “The Ice Storm,” “The Wedding Banquet” and “Sense and Sensibility”), the allure of “Lust, Caution” lies in the irreducible mystery of its love story, which culminates in a seemingly rash and irrational act. “It’s complex and hard to pin down,” he said. “Maybe it can’t be pinned down.”
To expand Chang’s slender story to a feature-length script (the film, which is in Mandarin, runs two and a half hours), Mr. Lee worked first with Wang Hui-Ling, a co-writer on some of his Chinese-language films, including “Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994) and the martial-arts fantasy “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000). He then turned to James Schamus, CEO of Focus Features as well as the producer of all of Mr. Lee’s films and the writer or co-writer on most of them. Mr. Schamus’s lack of familiarity with Chang’s work was an advantage.
“I didn’t have the innate reverence that I think Chinese readers do,” he said. “I didn’t have to worry too much about suggesting significant changes.”
A grand production on a modest budget of under $15 million, “Lust, Caution” was shot over four months in Hong Kong, Malaysia (standing in for old Hong Kong) and Shanghai. The most ambitious undertaking was a full-scale re-creation, built in only three months on a Shanghai soundstage, of a section of Nanking Road, the city’s commercial thoroughfare, complete with more than 100 storefronts. But above all it was the raw intensity of the intimate scenes that made for a grueling shoot. “We didn’t have to stick our stars 60 feet in the air above a bamboo forest,” Mr. Schamus said, referring to the wire-work ballet of “Crouching Tiger,” “so in that sense it was easier. But especially for Ang this was a much more difficult film. It took him to a place that was really emotional and extreme.”
Mr. Lee’s “Lust, Caution” makes overt the first part of its title, which Chang only hinted at in her lush, stylized prose. “It was very brave of her to fit this story of a woman’s sexual pleasure into a story of war, something so patriarchal and macho,” Mr. Lee said. “How she put that subject matter in this huge canvas — it’s a little drop but the ripple is tremendous.” He said he felt no obligation to retain the relative discretion of the writing: “In Chinese literature the art is the hiding. But movies are another animal. It’s a graphic tool.”
Accordingly, his film features a few notably revealing and acrobatic sex scenes. (A less explicit cut is being prepared for a possible Chinese release.) These were shot over 11 days on a closed set, with only the main camera and sound personnel present. Leaving room to improvise, Mr. Lee talked through the physical and emotional content of each scene with Mr. Leung (the Hong Kong star best known here for his roles in Wong Kar-wai’s films) and Ms. Tang (who had never before acted in a film). “Ang’s a unique director because he trained to be an actor,” Mr. Leung said by e-mail from China, where he is shooting a film with John Woo. “He’s very quick and intuitive and is always offering his actors something new to work off of.”
The process was harrowing. “We could only shoot for half the day because we’d be exhausted,” Mr. Lee said. “I almost went insane.” But he was convinced of the necessity of the sex scenes. “They’re like the fight sequences in ‘Crouching Tiger,’ ” he said. “It’s life and death. It’s where they really show their character.” He added, “And it’s part of the plot, since it’s all about acting, levels of acting. You’re performing when you have sex.” (At press time “Lust, Caution” had not yet received a rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, but both Mr. Lee and Mr. Schamus said they were expecting an NC-17.)
“Lust, Caution” conjures not just ’40s Shanghai but ’40s Hollywood, summoning the ghosts of film noirs and wartime romantic melodramas. The shadow of Alfred Hitchcock looms large. A poster of “Suspicion” — which Mr. Lee noted was “the biggest hit of 1942 in Shanghai” — is glimpsed at one point. “Notorious,” with its intricate entangling of perverse love and espionage business, is the obvious influence (possibly even for Chang, an occasional film critic who wrote screenplays for Hong Kong’s Cathay Studios in the ’50s and ’60s). Mr. Lee cites another touchstone: Josef von Sternberg’s 1931 “Dishonored,” starring Marlene Dietrich as an Austrian secret agent spying on the Russians.
For Mr. Lee, whose parents were exiles from mainland China, “Lust, Caution” resonates on a political level. “It’s about occupying and being occupied,” he said. “The peril here is falling in love with your occupier.” But he was also drawn to the poignant notion that the story, though inspired by an actual assassination plot in the 1930s, incorporated elements of Chang’s own life: a university education in Hong Kong interrupted by war, and a doomed romance with an older man publicly known as a traitor. Chang’s first husband, the writer Hu Lancheng, briefly served in the puppet government and was an inveterate philanderer.
“It was hard for me to live in Eileen Chang’s world,” Mr. Lee said. “There are days I hated her for it. It’s so sad, so tragic. But you realize there’s a shortage of love in her life: romantic love, family love.” He added, “This is the story of what killed love for her.”