Ang Lee, director-producer
EmptyAwards: 2006 Academy Award for best director ("Brokeback Mountain"), 2006 Golden Globe for best director ("Brokeback Mountain"), 2001 Golden Globe for best director ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"). Current credit: Focus Features' Chinese-language drama "Lust, Caution," based on Eileen Chang's short story about an aspiring actress who becomes entangled with a government official during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. Memberships: Directors Guild of America; Academy member since 1995
The Hollywood Reporter: You were just awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. How does it feel to know that people are responding so positively to "Lust, Caution"?
Ang Lee: It's heartwarming. I was doing something I was afraid to do because the subject matter is viewing a patriotic period in Chinese history through a woman's sexuality. That combination is more scary than portraying American gay cowboys to me. There was a lot of burden going back to China after winning the Oscar to do something that is so important in our history: the Japanese occupation during the Second World War. There are a lot of extraordinary scenes. I explored that as the ultimate performance: body language and scrutiny for the truth through lovemaking. That's very intense. The movie's pretty intense actually. It's not like "Brokeback Mountain" where you know how you feel at the end. I don't really know what to make of the movie or what the audience should.
THR: Do you see "Lust, Caution" as the thematic counterpart to "Brokeback Mountain"?
Lee: To me, "Brokeback Mountain" is like paradise that is lost. They cannot go back. This feels like hell to me -- this is a darker version of the same subject matter. I didn't plan that. I didn't think after the Oscars: The only thing I can do is make a Chinese film. It doesn't work that way. It burrows in my head for a while.
THR: In what ways did winning the Oscar impact your career?
Lee: Getting an Oscar helps a lot to accomplish what I want to do in China. I get a lot of enthusiastic help in Chinese society, in Asia. You go to Malaysia, Shanghai, Hong Kong, people just want to be involved in my movie. If it's on a 100 point (scale), what I did in my career is maybe 70%, then the Oscar added the other 30%, something like that. There's a certain excitement when they see me, but the Oscar is very exciting. To see a Chinese director standing up there, they got very excited when they saw me.
THR: You've said that you didn't adapt Chang's story so much as re-enact it. Can you elaborate on that?
Lee: I think of it as almost like jazz. You take a theme, and then you take off. It's 28 pages long, and a lot of things were suggested. Also, she's such a writer, you cannot merely translate what's on the page; you would only look stupid. Once you get into the work, you keep finding so many things in the writing that suggest that there are so many layers. It's so smart, so deceptive. You just get deeper and deeper, and you realize you're in her trap. It does feel like hell sometimes. You get moody; you get obsessed.
THR: The star of the film, Tang Wei, is remarkable in her first feature film role.
Lee: We screened through 10,000 actresses to get to her. The first time she walked in, I just had a sense that she's (the embodiment of the character) Wong Jiazhi. She has a disposition that belongs to my parents' generation. It's a strange thing. In real life, she's probably a fish out of water because she's so different. She looks like she belongs to the past. The shape of her face is pretty much exactly how it was written in the short story. I started out as an actor, so I really identify with that part even though it's a girl's part. When she walked in, it felt like seeing myself somehow.
THR: The graphic depiction of sex in the film has generated some controversy. Was it difficult to shoot those scenes?
Lee: We talked through them before we shot the movie. Through shooting, knowing what the movie is about, it came naturally. The girl has to withstand the scrutiny of her interrogator about truth, about love, about so many things, so the situation required me to figure out how you do that. Everything you see in the movie was designed for dramatic purposes. I have to give them great credit. Tony (Leung, who plays Japanese collaborator Mr. Yee) has done so much great acting, and he's willing to try something new and invest himself in it. It was the most special working relationship I had with actors.
THR: I would imagine your ongoing professional relationship with Focus Features CEO James Schamus, which dates back to your first film, 1992's "Pushing Hands," is fairly special as well.
Lee: He's like my lost brother. Our working relationship is like a perfect marriage. He's really smart and hip and knowledgeable. He's a great salesmen, he's a great intellectual, an egghead. I'm not. I'm like a racing horse. I just want to deal with what I want in making a movie. He knows what I like and knows how to inspire me, and he knows how to sell. Each time, I give him something harder. "Here's a Chinese drama, two and a half hours, NC-17. See what you can do."
Previous Honor Role dialogues:
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