“Each time they have intercourse, it’s like a conversation — and sex is the ultimate body language,” says Ang Lee in our current issue. Lee was refreshingly frank and specific about the NC-17 sex scenes in his new film Lust, Caution, which takes place during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, as a young Chinese radical (Tang Wei) seduces a brutal collaborator (Tony Leung). He had much more to say in our interview, during which Lee, a proud alum, sported an NYU T-shirt — including his belief that shooting Hulk was his midlife crisis.
There’s almost no sex in your earlier films. Why are you attracted to sex now?
It’s true. It’s something I have not really been confronting. I’m not a romantic. In life I didn’t have much experience with romance. So I guess a lot of things I never really dealt with. Now I’m dealing with these things, after having a kind of midlife crisis I think. It’s like I went through a childish stage through Crouching Tiger and Hulk. And now I’m in a beautiful rebellious, romantic stage. I’m such a late bloomer. I should have done this when I was thirtysomething. But I’m 52. Up to Sense and Sensibility I felt I was doing very similar things. Sex has been teased, but it’s not really dealt with.
Was part of the attraction also that Tang Wei’s character is theatrical: an actress who becomes a spy?
By playing the bad girl, she actually found a touch of what she is, the real her. In this sensual contact, she has to surpass the ultimate scrutiny from the interrogator, her lover. That’s ultimate acting to me. That’s what we, as filmmakers, do: Try to earn the trust from the audience, try to win them over, by pretending. But in the path, you touch the real self.
Why is the first sex scene — when they meet again after almost having a liaison years earlier — so rough?
When they first meet, Tony’s character is younger; he has ideals. Then three years later, he’s in this shithole in hell. He hates himself so much. He’s public enemy number one, and he knows it. So when we were shooting, I knew how I wanted to block the scene, all the whips and belts and whatever, but then Tony did a subconscious thing: He grabbed Tang Wei’s hair and banged her head against the wall. That I didn’t think of. Tony’s a very mild-mannered man. I said, “Why are you so angry?” He said, “I just followed an impulse basically. I thought of this man — how happy he was three years ago. When I see her again three years later, I really want to resume where I left off, but I know I can’t. Three years he’s been thinking, Maybe I should have gone upstairs with her — and now I’m just very pissed.”
The sex becomes a kind of metaphor for the occupation, right?
Well, the first one we did was that close raping scene where he beat her up. I think that scene sort of anchored the psychology of the movie and their relationship, as it’s anchored within the political atmosphere of the occupation. The resistance is talking about whores. And the man-woman relationship is the ultimate occupy-or-be-occupied, predator-and-prey relationship. When I think about it: Who’s occupying who? At the end of that scene, when she gives that wicked smile, she looks back at him, like, "Is that all you can deliver?" It’s very hard to tell who’s manipulating who in that position.
Tony’s character is very conflicted in bed.
Only through animal acts can he release what he’s repressed.
You make very specific decisions with the sexual positions, the way you pose your actors.
Well, it’s not like there’s a relationship, and then there’s body contact. You can’t separate the two of them. She so needs fatherly love. That’s why I put her in the fetal position often. It gradually tells you that she needs a father, protection, love. So that’s the position I felt would represent it. When the music rises, and they come and they hug, she climaxes through crying. And he totally gives in for a moment. You can see visually how they feel for once. But they’re not looking at each other. They can’t show this to each other.
And it gets very kinky from there.
They have to be contorted to squeeze the truth out, so to speak. So I used their bodies to allow them to inflict their emotions on each other.
Related: How Ang Lee Earned His NC-17 [NYM]