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Interview with Ang Lee

  • Story Highlights
  • "It's harder for me to make Chinese films ... It just hurts more"
  • Tang Wei "reminded me of like my high school teacher, my parents"
  • 30-minute cut for China? "That's a rumor. It's much less than 10 minutes"
  • Sex scenes: "When I actually touch it, it is more nightmare than a dream"
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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- AS: Hello I'm Andrew Stevens. Our guest today is one of the world's most successful film directors, the Academy Award-winning Ang Lee. This is Talk Asia.

Ang Lee, award-winning director of "Lust, Caution"

Ang Lee, award-winning director of "Lust, Caution"

Ang Lee, thanks very much for joining us. In 2005, you won Best Director and it was said that you had the cinematic world at your feet -- you could do anything you liked, anywhere in the world. So what drew you to "Lust, Caution"?

AL: I had thought about "Lust, Caution" for a while, I'd been resisting it like "Brokeback Mountain." I thought it was taboo to portray female, the psychology of female sexuality against the backdrop of the war against Japan. It's just as scary, if not more, than portraying American gay cowboys. So I've been thinking about that, working with the script for a bit, when I was done Oscar-campaigning and everything, fulfilled my duty, I just couldn't wait to jump into this film.

AS: Had you not won the Best Director Oscar, do you think you still would've made "Lust, Caution"? Or do you think that gave you the confidence or the backing to do it?

AL: It's more backing than confidence, and this was a regime that had never been filmed before. And I got all the support and allowance I wanted, to make it properly in China and Hong Kong. I think the Academy Award was the backbone, so to speak.

AS: Definitely propelled you. You mentioned taboo subjects, taboo subjects like "Brokeback Mountain" and now "Lust, Caution." Do you see a lot of similarities between these two films?

AL: Mostly I would say, I was in the mood of love, romantic love, for this period of my career, of my life. Something after my mid-life crisis, I think I want to get into something I feel I missed in portraying or in going through myself personally. I don't know what it is, they attract me, they draw me to make a movie. I was dealing with prohibited romantic love, something that is yearning, something impossible, something that is so difficult to portray, to put a word... definition on.

AS: Well, "Lust, Caution" is set in wartime Shanghai. Why did you decide to come back to Asia and Asian themes?

AL: After I done some American film dealing with different subject matter, texture, work with people, polish my skill, whatever, I always feel the need to come back to my cultural root to re-examine, and also use the skill and the resources, so to speak. It's harder for me to make Chinese films, because first of all, psychologically, it's more personal, the texture is more personal to me, it just hurts more.

AS: Let's talk about the newcomer in this film, Tang Wei. She beat out a handful of A-list well-known Chinese actresses...

AL: Ten thousand newcomers.

AS: ...She's been described as a revelation in this film. How... Why did you choose her? What drew you to her?

AL: First of all, like I cast anybody, a gut feeling. When she walked into the room, you have a sense... She's Wang Jiazhi, yeah. Then you have to prove that your instinct is right, many layers of tests, screen test, talking to her... In short, she had a disposition that reminded me of like my high school teacher, my parents, of that generation. I reckon that she must be a fish out of water in today's society, among her peers. She was not popular, she didn't get a lot of work in television, what have you, but she, just the way her figure, look, and her disposition, feel right to me about that generation.

AS: Let's just talk about that intimacy in the film, because there's been a lot of talk about the sex scenes in the film. You refused to cut any scenes in the U.S. release, but you cut 20 minutes out of the...

AL: That's a rumor. It's much less than 10 minutes, 7 or 8 minutes or something.

AS: From the Chinese?

AL: Yeah, I think some Chinese press saw the film in Venice -- they were shocked such a movie can be made, in a good way, and put almost an exclamation mark: "Are they going to cut out 30 minutes to be shown in China?" And then it was quoted all over the world. But it's much less than 10 minutes.

AS: Do you worry that that changes the essence of the film? Losing those scenes?

AL: Big or small audiences, I would rather show that version, but there's no such system in China, so I give them a version that's my own cut. You don't lose the essence, it flows, and nobody sees that the scenes are cut, but it will weigh differently.

AS: Talking about those scenes, are they at the very center, do you think, of this film?

AL: I think so. This is old-fashioned film noir, which in a romantic and mysterious ways toward the end, or certain part of the movie, you'll think you get lost in the mystery of the core of darkness. That's what those things are for me, that is not speakable. It's very hard, you can only sense it, and you can get lost in there. People call it espionage or thriller, but I think it's a mixed genre, perhaps most close to old-fashioned film noir. And I think for the actors, it's their ultimate acting role. For her to withstand his scrutiny as an interrogator, to earn his trust and therefore they unleash some chemistry of perhaps love, feeling of love. And then they have to deny it, it's in a way what the film's about. It's also difficult for me, because it's almost the ultimate exposure of myself, so to speak. So it was really uncomfortable to shoot them. Perhaps uncomfortable to watch.

AS: How difficult was it for you? I mean it was a closed set, it took 12 days...

AL: I've never experienced such film experience before in my career. Something I was dreaming about, but then when I actually touch it, it is more nightmare than a dream. I think expose yourself, whether it's nakedness or spiritually, your desire exposure... For some people it's very comfortable, for me it's not -- like for most people, it's private, it's uncomfortable, and you have to battle with your psychological barriers. I think that takes a lot of energy.

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AS: "Brokeback Mountain" has never been shown in China, but when you won Best Director in 2005 for that film, the Chinese media said, and I quote: "You are the pride of the Chinese people all over the world." Do you find that a little hypocritical, the fact that you are fated by China, yet your film is not allowed to be shown there?

AL: It was, I wouldn't say hypocritical. I think they are genuinely happy to see a Chinese director win an Academy Award with good artistic value. I think that pride is genuine, so I would not think that's hypocritical at all. Not only in my judgment, I literally meet people who are genuinely happy. No, no, I don't think so, it's just like they don't want homosexual movie shown in the movies, it's hard to put American logic... It's just something else. I don't know how to describe it, it's just something else. So what can I say?

AS: I told a friend of mine today I was interviewing you, and we were talking about "Brokeback Mountain," and he is from Wyoming, from the area where the film was... And he said he was shocked, in other words, he was shocked when he found out you had directed the film. And I asked him why, and he said, because a Chinese guy had come in there and perfectly caught small-town little-known America, the clothes, the conversations, the whole essence of what that place was. How do you create that sort of authenticity?

AL: It took a while, but I think it's possible. I think a movie is a media that is evoking feelings. It's a media. What I made is not equivalent to what exactly is in Wyoming but evoked viewers' feelings. I think something evoked from your friend and somebody else from LA, a Valley girl, it will be something different. But I think I get the pulse, so to speak.

AS: Ok, by the same token, do you think a Western, an American, U.S.-trained director could step into a movie in Shanghai, reasonably contemporary Shanghai or Beijing, and do the same sort of thing you could do, capture the nuances?

AL: Absolutely. I think doing period piece is easier, because after a certain distance, everybody is equal, I think. The relative contemporary is harder. I think that's the way it is. I remember I was a lot more nervous about doing "The Ice Storm" in 1973, which was the nearest, newest period drama back then in '97. I was more nervous about that movie than doing "Sense & Sensibility," because it was closer to us, and people live through it, they have opinions. People sometimes ask me, would you do something differently now? Sometimes, I think I should know better for that shot, for that take, for that moment, but I never really give that a thought.

AS: But it's an interesting point you raise,: Is the director ever fully satisfied with a film?

AL: Again, I don't think that way. I think each movie-making process is a very exhausting and satisfying and fulfilling experience for me. That's why, when it's done, I am looking for a new subject matter to explore. So hundred percent, I'll do hundred percent with no reservation. It's not like I have a chart, by this year I do this genre, I move on. It's not like that. I give everything I have to do that movie.

AS: Your body of film is certainly eclectic: "Sense & Sensibility", "The Ice Storm", you've mentioned, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "Brokeback Mountain." You look at that as a body of work -- is there a thread there? Is there something that says these are all Ang Lee films, do you think?

AL: I like to do drama, something about life that could be disappointing. Not necessarily sad, just the fact that humbles you, that make you respect life, so to speak, even more and more after watching the movie. I think that's just the way I'm learning about life, I see life and respect it.


AS: You grew up in Taiwan. Your upbringing is described as modest. Did you though, have big ambitions? Did you expect that you would be as successful as you have become?

AL: It's hard to say, it's a dream. I dissociate it with reality. It's a dream. But over the years, it seems like I'm moving closer and closer to that dream. Sometimes I'm in it, in and out. Like growing up in Taiwan you watch Academy Awards. You can dream about if I stood there, how would I thank people? I think, not just me, a lot of people have that fantasy. But then I was there some 30 years later, 40 years later. "I would like to say thank you for your support, people from Taiwan." It's like déjà vu. So it's very hard to describe whether it's an ambition or a dream.

AS: Your father was an academic and he, I understand, wanted you to become a professor. You were more interested, obviously, in arts. Was that a cause for friction in the family?

AL: I think the way we grow up, being in the movie business is almost like a shame for him. It's not like he think that being professor, teaching, is the highest I could go, but if I like drama, the least embarrassing thing would be teaching drama at university. I think that's all there is. Not that he wants me to be an academic, it's just most tolerable. I think after "The Hulk," for some reason he gave up. And I said, I wanna give up, I can't go anymore, I'm exhausted. He said to me, so do you want to teach? I said no, I don't feel like teaching. Then he said go ahead and make a movie. What are you gonna do, you're only 49. Then I went on to make "Brokeback Mountain."

AS: Was that an important moment though, in your life, when your father said to you, well, go ahead, go make a movie?

AL: Yes, it meant a lot to me. Um, it's a funny thing, two weeks later after he said that sentence, he passed away. So it was something in my life I'll always remember. The way, the day he said to me. He said, "Put on your helmet! Go make another movie." I was like, shocked. It was like when I was 20, the first time he gave me a cigarette. We didn't say a word. He was preaching me, talking to me, and he took out a cigarette and just gave one to me. I didn't know what to do with that cigarette... Ok. That day was like a Bar Mitzvah for me. The day when he said, "Go ahead, make a movie," it was a blessing. I felt finally the conflict, the macho to macho, the whole conflict, sort of, we got over such a significant part of our lives.

AS: Let's just go back a few steps. When you went to the U.S. as a struggling actor who was not fluent in English, you had some pretty tough years. What was the big break?

AL: The break, the profound break, never really come. It has never come, I don't know if it will ever come. The break that finally I find my identity and am comfortable. That never occurred to me. It's always a struggle in making movies, particularly English-language films, because there's the unfamiliarity I have to adapt, have to make judgments. When I'm off the set, it's hard for me to carry a conversation. That's more difficult for me than making a movie. 'Cause making a movie, I have plans in my head somehow, one way or another I manage to roll the camera and get something in the can. But off the set, in the dining table, throw me to a party, it's still awkward for me.

AS: Why do you think that is?

AL: Familiarity with material to talk about, social life, life in general, language, knowledge.

AS: Where do you feel at your most comfortable socially?

AL: When we talk about movie in a party, in an occasion, it could be comfortable momentarily, so that's kind of about it. It's hard for me to feel comfortable socially. I'm always shy, it's just part of my character.

AS: Do you want, or do you like being considered as the torchbearer of Chinese movies on the global stage?

AL: No, it's uneasy. As a matter of fact, it's very uncomfortable for me. I'd rather not carry the torch, I'd rather be watching somebody else carry the torch. It's an incredible burden on my shoulder. But I'm passionate about making movies, so as far as I'm concerned, that's the duty I have.

AS: You haven't directed many films. You don't have a huge number of films under your belt, but many of the films you have directed have received prizes, awards. So in a nutshell, what is the secret, do you think, of your success?

AL: There's no secret. When I make a movie, I'm passionate about it. I feel the need for doing it. It's never in my mind, if I do this, I can win Venice, or Cannes, or the Oscar or Golden Awards in Taiwan. It never occurred to me.

AS: Do the prizes you win then don't actually mean that much to you?

AL: Well, it means something, you get a lot of attention, and when you hold that, it's not nothing, when you hold it on stage. But I will tell you, there's only one time when I won a prize, a major prize, that I feel comfortable about -- like hey, that was pretty good -- that was for "Brokeback" when winning the Venice. There was no jealousy, no argument, it was just at ease, everybody smiling at me. That was the only time I could remember I was happy winning an award. It's a mixture of excitement for myself, for the effort put in, for the filmmakers that worked along with me, there was a great pride in it, the happiness about it's easier to release the film, everything, honor. But then also a hint of discomfort about being watched.

AS: Ang Lee, thank you very much.

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