Ang Lee Tackles Tough Subjects in 'Lust, Caution' The new film, set in l942 during the Japanese occupation of China, is about a dangerous affair between a young resistance fighter and a top Chinese collaborator. Lee, who won an Oscar for Brokeback Mountain, says this was much more difficult subject to tackle.

Ang Lee Tackles Tough Subjects in 'Lust, Caution'

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Ang Lee has a new film, and it's just won The Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival. "Lust, Caution" is set during the Japanese occupation of China during World War II. The young village woman named Wong washes up at the big-city university and joins a drama troupe.

The young men and women of the troupe decide to do something more practical with their national fervor than just rouse millions to stand up and shout, China will not fail.

They hatched a scheme to plant Wong on a Chinese official who is a collaborator - and a torturer - so they can assassinate him.

The first part of their plot works. But Wong and that official, Mr. Yi, also become ensnared in a brutal relationship that's deceitful on one part and savage on the other, and they both become vulnerable.

The lust of the film's title is so graphic and often wrenching - it's been rated NC-17. The film stars Tony Leung and Tang Wei. It is adapted from a short story by Eileen Chang. And Ang Lee joins us now from member station KALW in San Francisco.

Mr. Lee, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. ANG LEE (Director, "Lust, Caution"): Thank you. It's my pleasure to be here.

SIMON: You know, after the success of "Brokeback Mountain" you must have had a lot of projects to choose from. What attracted you to this one?

Mr. LEE: This is a story I've been thinking about doing for a while and afraid of doing it for maybe three years…

SIMON: Why afraid?

Mr. LEE: Three, four years ago.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. LEE: You know, the war against the Japanese all macho and glorious and you doubt a (unintelligible) patriotism. And this is a very strange short story written by our most beloved writer in modern Chinese literature - Eileen Chang.

That she used female sexual psychology to use the human nature against the backdrop of the glorious war against Japanese. It's kind of on the flipside of how I was brought up. We never questioned patriotism. In some weird ways, it's more scary than portraying American gay cowboys. It's a very strange, quite profound project for me.

SIMON: Let me put it this way. I think it's uncomfortable for people to see and, of course, we're talking about the scenes. When I say graphic or even brutal sex, they're very difficult for people to see because, honestly, I guess we'd like to think that the only people who have that inside of them must be monsters, not recognizable people.

Mr. LEE: These two characters, one is the ultimate actress; she has to perform so real as she has to earn the trust of an interrogator, that's him.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. LEE: And on the other hand, the man, the torturer, the interrogator is a national public enemy number one or number two.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. LEE: The man has a great fear and great denial on the subject of love.

SIMON: I must say, having seen the film, I don't think if I were Chinese I would feel less patriotic. I would feel it was more honorable than ever to get rid of the Japanese oppressor. I just wouldn't quite know that it was somehow - sometimes, it's messy as it was.

Mr. LEE: Yes, that's the thing, to tell you the honorable side, the brave side, the battle. They don't tell you how he feels killing someone. They encourage girls like the old character to sacrifice himself to get good results and that, they don't tell you what it's like to have sex with the enemy and what you might even get from the sex.

I think it's the artist's job to bring them up. I think Eileen Chang is very brave writer and much, much ahead of her time.

SIMON: Eileen Chang.

Mr. LEE: The writer, so you had Eileen Chang to write this story. I've never seen anything like that. But in the meantime, the element of the young actress, Wang Jiazhi, that she only through pretending and playing that she can reach her true self.

That I could identify very much with not only I'm a filmmaker, I make images - I pretend. I borrow other characters and stories to reach the truth by being away from reality. I also have very similar experience like her first stage experience. That stage play I basically shouted, according to my memory of my first experience onstage myself.

SIMON: Her first stage play is when they get the audience to stand up and say, China will not fail.

Mr. LEE: Not as dramatic.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. LEE: Just the way I remember how I have to first breathe in, take on the audience sitting in the dark, and the spotlight shining on my face and saying the lines, projecting myself. I found the power there.

SIMON: Now, I understand that there's a separate version for the Chinese audience, right?

Mr. LEE: That's right.

SIMON: Is this a version that is the result of Chinese censors chopping away what they find offensive or is this a version that you have made knowing what you can get past the censors in China?

Mr. LEE: It's the latter. It's my guess. By the way, it's just the fact that a movie is getting made the waves(ph)…

SIMON: Not just in China (unintelligible)?

Mr. LEE: Yeah, in China. It's pretty miraculous. It's a big step forward. And such a theme can be allowed to show in there, it's a big step forward. But without those sex scenes or some of the stabbing scene, the movie still flow quite well I believe, but the weight is different - the way on how it lands on the you.

SIMON: I want to ask you about the performance of Tony Leung, one of China's great actors, often called, I guess, the Clark Gable of Hong Kong Cinema. This is a very different kind of role for him.

Mr. LEE: I don't think he ever plays a villain and a national traitor and also a middle-age character.

SIMON: Yeah?

Mr. LEE: On purpose, he's not as attractive and yeah, he's our greatest actor.

SIMON: Can I ask you a couple of biographical questions?

Mr. LEE: Sure.

SIMON: I know you went to the University of Illinois and at NYU Film School where you worked on a project with Spike Lee.

Mr. LEE: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: Are you two related?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEE: My little brother Spike.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I think when we talked to him he called you his brother…

Mr. LEE: (Unintelligible) yeah.

SIMON: And you spent a few years as what we call a househusband, didn't you?

Mr. LEE: Yes, like six years.

SIMON: Your wife is a microbiologist.

Mr. LEE: She's a microbiologist. She brings bread to the table and I cook and take care of the kids, writing scripts, pitching.

SIMON: Were you coming up with film ideas then, you were trying to break in the film industry? What were you doing?

Mr. LEE: Yeah, basically, that's what I do. Nobody give me a script, so I have to write my own script or collaborate with somebody else. It's just very hard. (Unintelligible) my hell. That's what I call.

SIMON: Developed in the hill.

Mr. LEE: For over those six years, I think, I'm a late bloomer. So it did do something good for me. One is I threw pitching and keep writing feature-length script. I learned a lot about what a feature-length movie needs just through the exercise of writing scripts.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LEE: And the others, I built a pretty firm foundation of my family and they'd been my backbone ever since, so I'm still banking from them.

SIMON: Mr. Lee, it's been a pleasure talking to you. Thanks so much.

Mr. LEE: Thank you.

SIMON: Filmmaker Ang Lee. His new film, "Lust, Caution," has just won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, and he joined us from San Francisco.

And this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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