First, let's talk about the sex. There's a lot of it in Ang Lee's new film, Lust, Caution: sweaty, acrobatic coupling that is, by turns, brutish and tender. And the camera doesn't shy away from any panting detail. Explicit even by today's standards, the movie works hard to earn the adults-only NC-17 rating it has been given in the U.S. Shooting the scenes was so exhausting that Lee and his cast could only work half-days. On one occasion, lead actress Tang Wei fainted.
But Lee isn't being provocative merely for the sake of it. If the lovemaking in the director's Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain represented a kind of prelapsarian idyll a state of innocence that can never be recaptured here the physical act takes his characters to a darker and more frightening place. "I think sexuality is worth exploring because it's the ultimate performance," says Lee, who is hanging out in a luxury hotel suite a few hours before the film's red-carpet Hong Kong premiere on Sept. 22. "The chemistry can be quite complicated. Sex is very much a performance. But that's the question: Performance or reality?"
Soft-spoken and pacific, Lee is as well known in Hollywood for his modesty as he is for his protean talent. It's hard to square volcanic passions, after all, with a man who once told an interviewer that one of his favorite restaurants was KFC. Lee's movies, too, often revolve around the repression of overwhelming emotion. In his wuxia epic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, swords and fists became stand-ins for everything the martial characters couldn't say. Brokeback Mountain's cowboys suffered for love they could not acknowledge. Even Lee's Hulk was an exploration of suppressed rage, its green marauder an embodiment of the unleashed id. "I lead a very mundane, normal life," says the 53-year-old director. "I'm happily married. I'm a reasonable person. But in making a movie, I like to touch the unknown. Sometimes, you get to this scary truth about your own subconscious existence."
With Lust, Caution Lee is charting new territory, trading Brokeback's Ansel Adams vistas for oppressive World War II Shanghai. But Lust, Caution shares with that film a mournful, elegiac tone. "It's this idea of repressed or impossible love," Lee says. "I find that yearning attractive. Somehow, it's my observation of the grand illusion of love: you can never acquire it, or attain it, or describe it. So the more difficult or elusive it is or in this case, the more twisted that becomes very attractive to me in making a movie."
Lust, Caution turns on a particularly dangerous liaison. Based on a novella by Chinese writer Eileen Chang, it's the story of a college student, played by Chinese TV actress Tang, who is recruited by a patriotic theater troupe planning to assassinate a cold-blooded interrogator for the occupying Japanese (played by Hong Kong star Tony Leung). To insinuate herself into his bourgeois world, and to ultimately seduce him, she transforms herself from a gawky ingenue into a ruby-lipped Mata Hari. She's initially playing a role. But her performance shades into real feeling, and their affair begins to blur the difference between seducer and seduced, becoming a mirror of the war outside: the bedroom is their battleground. "Love is the ultimate occupation," Lee says. "It's basically what the movie is about: she has to do this performance to withstand his scrutiny as an interrogator. Through which they have a taste of love, and it's very scary to them."
For Lee, that theme the possibility of dramatic transformation through artifice struck a personal chord. At 18, he entered the Art Academy of Taiwan as an acting student, and found himself changed from a shy, uncertain teen into a star. Only after moving to the U.S. in 1978 did he switch to directing. His English, he realized, wasn't good enough for him to succeed in America as an actor.
After directing a triptych of art-house films that dealt with the strain between traditional Chinese families and their modern children, Lee began working with a larger palette, jumping from genre to genre without a misstep. What other filmmaker has adapted both Jane Austen and a comic book, or followed a kung-fu film with a movie about gay cowboys? In Lust, Caution, Lee is trying out yet another, marrying an old-fashioned noir spy thriller à la Hitchcock's Notorious with a serious-minded inquiry into the nature of desire.
Beneath its lacquered surfaces and tasteful period trappings, Lust, Caution is a movie about the ineffable mystery of sex its power to debase, as well as to sanctify. In the film, the lovers' first encounter is violent, verging on rape; later, when they twist into a fleshy pretzel, their embrace becomes a shelter from the dangerous outside world. The censors who have branded Lee's film as art-house erotica have got it all wrong. Lust, Caution isn't an adult movie just a grown-up one.