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Ang Lee celebrates golden success of "Lust, Caution"

  • Story Highlights
  • Oscar-winning director Ang Lee is best known for "Brokeback Mountain"
  • His latest film, "Lust, Caution" is a torrid espionage thriller set in WWII Shanghai
  • The film stars Asian icon Tony Leung Chiu Wai and newcomer Wei Tang
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By Mairi Mackay
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Ang Lee could be having a good year -- but he's not sure. "I got a Golden Lion," he says, in an exclusive interview with CNN. "I got a Golden Lion," he repeats, chuckling as if he can't quite believe his luck.

Director Ang Lee's latest film, "Lust Caution," has swept the board at the Golden Horse awards

He was awarded the top prize at the prestigious Venice Film Festival for his latest film "Lust, Caution" -- an erotic tale of espionage and blurred morality set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai during the Second World War.

"By a jury fully made of directors, so that means something," he adds, extraordinarily deferential for the filmmaker whose success in 2005 with "Brokeback Mountain" confirmed his status as a heavyweight auteur.

In person the Taiwanese director is quiet and measured -- almost shy. But behind the reserve is a man who brought one of the most sexually explicit films of recent times to our screens; he also persuaded the draconian Chinese authorities to let him shoot in Shanghai.

Despite the furore over the sex, "Lust, Caution" is an essay in deceit and repressed emotions which has won over both fans and critics -- particularly in Asia. Read our review of "Lust, Caution."

"It is a phenomenon, it is a cultural phenomenon," says Lee looking a bit more confident as he describes the film's extraordinary performance in the continent.

Lee thinks that some of the film's success is due to the historical backdrop that he has so faithfully re-created. In mainland China, the Cultural Revolution robbed the population of huge chunks of their history. Seeing history reflected on the screen for the first time has been poignant for the Hong Kong Chinese and the Taiwanese as well as the mainlanders.

"I think it is a catharsis. Something they've been yearning to see all their lives. The repression. The sadness of being Asian," he explained.

Eileen Chang, the most beloved of all Chinese authors, wrote the novella "Lust, Caution" that the film is based on. Lee read it and thought it deserved a movie.

"The short story was just extraordinary," he told CNN. "Beautiful and cruel at the same time. She was inspired by movies, and structured the story as a movie. We just had to fill in the spaces she laid out," he said.

It has been in Taiwanese cinemas for 11 weeks and is still pulling in the crowds, with many returning for repeat visits. Asian critics are enamored, too. The film recently swept the board at the Taiwanese equivalent of the "Oscars," the Golden Horse awards, winning seven gongs including best director for Lee, and best actor and best newcomer for Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Wei Tang respectively, the film's co-stars.

It has had more modest success in the United States but Lee thinks the film has a cultural resonance for Eastern audiences Western audiences just don't get.

"Female sexuality, the psychology of it, and patriotism on the other side. That's very frightening for the Eastern people I think. Almost like taboo," he continued.

Lee says rumors that Chinese censors cut 20 minutes out of the film before it could be shown are untrue, but he has had to make sacrifices. He personally cut seven minutes -- of mainly sex -- out of the mainland Chinese version. He calls it the "light version".

"I've never tried to be a hero, I just tried to make the movies how I intend them to be made," he sighs.

"I had thought of not releasing it there but I think it's more influential that the movie plays out there," he explained.

But for all the hype that surrounds the graphic sex scenes, Lee is adamant that they are the heart of the story.

"They are the weight and anchor for me. In the script it's not describable. I don't think I'd know how to craft the second half without knowing the sex scenes."

But that doesn't mean it was an easy thing to do. "It's a very painful experience because we were shy," he said.

The three scenes were shot in twelve days at the beginning of the shoot and the director managed to persuade the actors to put themselves entirely in his hands.

"All I had to do to the actors was just seduce them with the idea that this was the ultimate performance," Lee says hinting at the single-mindedness and passion that lie behind his reserve.

"Lust, Caution" is his most personal film yet and Lee says he is a different person during the filmmaking process. "This movie has the most part of me yet in it," he told CNN. "In normal life, I'm like the student leader -- pure, nice person, honorable, clean -- but when I actually do a job, I get down and dirty," he says. (Hugh Grant, whom he directed in "Sense and Sensibility," famously called him "Fang Lee".)

Wei's performance as Wong Chia Chi, variously called a revelation and a sensation, proved the director's initial gut feeling: "When I met her I had the feeling that it's her story, I just had the feeling. Her disposition reminds me of my parents. The way she held herself, the way she talked. I felt like she is destined to play this part," he said.

He was wary of giving an unknown actress such a prominent role, but when she outperformed 10,000 other actresses in the screen test, Lee began to believe she could do it.

A total newcomer, she acts opposite Tony Leung Chiu Wai, the Asian matinee idol famous for his collaborations with Wong Kar Wai in films like the exquisite "In the Mood for Love" (2000.) Lee describes him as a man "looking like a mouse" and used his delicacy to create sympathy with an idealistic man who has become a monster.

"I've never seen anybody play scared that good like in this movie. At the same time he has to unleash that violence. He is a very complex, twisted character,"

Lee gives actors and crew a hard time but drives himself even harder.

Indeed, Wei Tang remembers getting three to five hours sleep a night for the whole 118-day shoot and says Lee got even less.

"He never stopped, never rested. When we finished work every day, we would rest. But he never did," she said.

It could be something to do with his perfectionism.

"Chinese film exhausts me because I would like to match it up to Western filmmaking," he told CNN. "But to match up everything culturally, technically, industrially, it's a far fetch. It's a lot of personal effort making every detail count," he said.

"It is also a lot more personal. The experiences you draw are more personal, more painful."

So far, he has no future plans. Rumor has it that he is in charge of the Beijing Olympics' opening ceremony with Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) and, Steven Spielberg but denies all knowledge of what the format will be.

There are no other movie projects in the pipeline either: "I'm still recovering from this film. I'm still talking. Still rationalizing what I do." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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