Ang Lee is nothing if not eclectic as a filmmaker. Having made a name for himself with films such as The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman he has tackled a variety of genres with enviable success. In 1995, he adapted Jane Austen's Sense & Sensibility, before turning his attentions to 1970s America with The Ice Storm. American Civil War drama Ride With The Devil followed before Lee wowed the world and re-defined the martial arts genre with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Hulk may have suffered at the box office and took its toll on the director but he was back on Oscar-winning form for Brokeback Mountain.
His latest, Lust, Caution, is a sexually explicit adaptation of a short story by revered Chinese author Eileen Chang.
Is Eileen Chang an author you've always wanted to adapt?
No, I think she's one of the most, if not the most beloved writer in modern Chinese history. A lot of people want to adapt her... and have but not always successfully in my opinion because they revere her writing so much. They were really restricted and didn't make a good movie. I wasn't one of them. I never thought I would do Eileen Chang in my lifetime. I'm a reader of hers but I'm not a huge fan in a lot of ways. But this particular short story was one of her later works and it was so peculiar and so unlike her work, that I thought it would make a perfect movie.
Was it a conscious decision to go and make a Chinese film after having had a few successes in America?
I like to go back to Chinese film-making from time to time. I don't think I can make Chinese films back to back; it's such a big effort. I'd have to take a very long break.
Why is it such a big effort?
It's a much smaller film industry and also there's not a lot of unions and rules on how things are done. So you get greedy and want everything because it's smaller support, so you have to attend to everything personally to get everything right. You have to train the actors personally. I feel it's my duty to make it right for somebody watching the movie. Also, the experience I draw from is more personal in Chinese. When I'm making an American movie or an English language movie I borrow it and adapt it. It's harder when it's personal.
Can you talk a little bit about how you found Tang Wei?
When she walked in I had a feeling. She had a very classic disposition, which I assume made her a fish out of water in real life. Her face is very close to how it was described in the short story. But I think most of all she was like the female side of me [laughs] because I identified with the girl in the story. Finally, as I talked to her, it was scary how close she is to Eileen Chang - the way she thinks and how she could fit right into the character. It feels like fate brought us together. It's her movie.
Can you also talk about Tony Leung? How did he come to the project?
I went after him because he's our best actor. Anything close to what he can do, I'd go to him first. I had dinner with him a year before I invited him to this character. I already had in mind that maybe I'd do Lust, Caution but I'd been resisting it. But while I was having dinner with him I wasn't sure because it almost seemed like a crazy idea - it's so opposite of him. But the idea was playing in my head and so I talked to him about the short story. He wasn't sure but he was still excited. I didn't have to twist his arm a lot. He kept saying he had the best time.
I gather shooting the sex scenes was quite intense - over 150 hours?
The three sex scenes took two weeks of shooting and each day was five or six hours in length. We couldn't go on any more - either them or me.
How did you direct those scenes? Did you have a very specific idea of what you wanted?
Yeah, in the morning when we came to the set I would have very specific ideas. There were things I'd been thinking about for months but nothing was fixed until the day I was in the car [on the way to the set]. It's not so much the shot, but the position. It was very difficult for me in terms of style and where we could go. I know I could not do pornography because it's not dramatic. You don't feel for that. But I could not do soft-core, like Emmanuel, because they'd obviously be faking it. I could not shoot with exquisite light.
A good example is The Lover - some shots for me were too pretty. Some were great, but others were too pretty to be taken seriously. So I had to avoid that. It could not be soft. And I could not totally go with drama. I'm on the brim of actually doing that. But if I'd done that people would get frustrated - I know I would. It would be like: "Are they having sex or what? Is this a torture scene or a sex scene?" So, in a way any of those three possibilities was not an answer for me, and what I ended up doing was trying to avoid all three of them. You cannot really torture the audience with sex, that's not fair. That's not what they're doing either, they're seeking comfort in each other.
Something I've got to tell you, in Taiwan I was keen to know what people thought and the best place was the toilet. People go to the toilet when they come out and talk about it, so you can predict what sort of life this movie is going to have. In the men's room, it was dead silence. They lined up and peed like zombies. In the woman's room, it was like a house of sparrows [laughs].
How frustrating is it that Lust, Caution is no longer eligible for Oscar consideration?
I think that it can prolong the life of the film because before the Academy, there are like 25 other awards and each time there is some press. It means a lot for something like Brokeback Mountain because the Academy Award means mainstream. It's the most watched show, so to win the best picture there means something culturally to the issues. For this, I think for the Chinese side they would like it to be noticed. It would have helped with global awareness, which is a good thing.
Lust, Caution opens in UK cinemas on Friday, 4 January, 2008.