What’s In Your DVD Player, Ang Lee?

Lust, Caution was released on DVD this week (see review in DVD of the Week – February 19, 2008). To mark the occasion, MSN published an interview I conducted with Ang Lee in the fall for the “What’s In Your DVD Player?” feature. You’d never guess what his answer was.anglee32418660.jpg

MSN Movies: What’s in your DVD player?

Ang Lee: “American Pie.” I saw it on the road because my son was watching it. He just happened to pop it in and I just walked in and I decided to sit there with him because I didn’t have much time with him. It’s a movie I missed and I always wanted to watch. If you asked me what’s the latest I saw, that was the movie. I hardly watch anything these days because I’m so busy flying around.

How did you like it?

It’s OK. I expect it’s something of a modern classic of that genre. It didn’t do as much for me as I hoped it would.

My interview is now running on MSN. Here are a few more clips:

I recall that in one scene the characters walk past a poster for Hitchcock’s “Suspicion.”

“Suspicion” was a big hit in Shanghai in 1942 so I put a poster there. The movie is somewhat Hitchcockian, so I think it’s proper. I would have used film clips except that it’s too on the nose for what we were doing with female anxiety.

There is another scene that reminds me of Hitchcock, and that’s when Yee’s bodyguard comes to the group to blackmail them and they try to kill him and he just won’t die. It wasn’t like “Torn Curtain” in any stylistic way, but it made me think of the film.

That particular scene was like Bar Mitzvah for me. It’s a coming of age for the boys, a disillusionment. The real deal. Because later on I’m going to show the real deal about sex. I think it’s a good establishing scene to get into the second half of the film. The illusion is over, they’re getting to the real deal, let’s go to Shanghai.

lust-caution.JPGYou recorded a video introduction for the Criterion edition of Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring.” What’s your connection with the film?

Somehow they read that it was the epiphany of me deciding to be a director. People always ask you, “What movies inspired you?” That was one of the movies that was pivotal in my life, so I mentioned it, they read it and they invited me. I’m honored and a little bit bashful to talk about the movie for them.

You did commentary tracks on “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “The Hulk,” both with James Schamus. Do you like doing commentary?

No. I dread it. (Laughs.) Especially with Jim, who is so funny. You feel obliged to say something witty and funny, but the movie flies by very quickly. Maybe someday I should stop it and talk about it for a while before they move on, but they just keep playing the movie and each frame, each moment reminded me of so many things that I didn’t really have time for it. So I cracked a few bad jokes and it passed by. (Laughs.) I never did it well. The first commentary I did it was “Sense and Sensibility.” I never enjoyed them, I never felt that I did a good job for the viewers, I wish I could do better. Sometimes I just avoid it totally.

You can read the entire piece here.

A few months ago, I published a much longer, more in-depth interview with Mr. Lee in GreenCine. Here is the opening:

Critics (including myself) and pundits have already pointed out that there is more caution than lust in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution. But then what would you expect from a director whose career is defined by characters who either repress their true feelings out of cultural expectation or social shame, or mask their emotions with manners and rituals? There’s more complexity to these tensions in this erotic espionage thriller, of course. The lust is so inextricably caught up, and in some ways compounded, by the caution that when Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), a collaborator working for the Japanese in occupied Shanghai during World War II, finally consummates his affair with Wang Jiazhi (Tang Wei), a young actress turned agent for the resistance, the stillness of restraint snaps like a dry twig and he explodes like a wild animal. Sex is power in every way, at least when the pent up desire is unleashed, but it’s also a force that overwhelms and confuses the emotional balance of the young woman.

Lust, Caution won the Golden Lion for Best film at the Venice Film Festival (Lee’s second in three years; he won for Brokeback Mountain in 2005) and is currently in release in the United States. Lee stopped in Seattle on his promotional tour and I had the chance to sit down and talk with the Oscar-winning director about the film in some detail.


The opening scene of Lust, Caution is a game of Mahjong with the wives of powerful men and it seems all politeness and small talk, but underneath are games of dominance and shows of power and one-upmanship.

It’s a battle. In their conversation, in their implicit looks to each other, also in the game, they’re killing each other. It’s like poker, you have to watch the countenance on the people and calculate what kind of tiles they have. So there’s a lot of things are happening on many layers all at once, and all the servants are at ease.

It sets up the template for the movie: everything is going to be played under a façade of politeness and social manner. Games are going to be played under the social niceties.
I think so. I’m glad you caught that. Also, there’s a war outside that we don’t see, so I think it’s a good implication of war.

It certainly suggests the tensions outside the mansion, and it introduces the society of collaborators and tension between them and the occupied population outside resisting the Japanese.

And jealousy. We don’t know who has relations with Mr. Yee. There’s a lot of it going on. And who is Mrs. Yee [Joan Chen]? Is she the leader of the pack? There’s a lot of possibilities that play out on the Mahjong table. We call the Mahjong game a civil war, like a square-shaped civil war. You close up in four directions, you’re beating each other inside. It’s called civil war. That’s in a way what the movie’s about. There’s this Japanese occupation, but the war you see is Chinese killing each other. They take sides in killing each other.

Lust, Caution You are working again with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who shot Brokeback Mountain. This film has a very lush, rich studio style. What did you and Prieto watch to prepare, what did you watch for your visual cues to build this look?

Old Cathay films, the pre-Shaw Brothers studio, because that’s a good connection between the time period I’m portraying and today. So a lot of patriotic references and good drama from back then to get nuances, and a lot of Shanghai movies from the 30s. And film noirs. Old film noirs of the 40s, those black and whites, were helpful, even though we tried to do it in color and focus on a new way for doing film noir.

And a bunch of paintings. Which is not necessarily period Shanghai, because if you check out the old Shanghai movies, they’re not that mature yet. It’s the dawn of the Chinese film industry, they’re trying to imitate Hollywood. But a lot of paintings. One special thing was the Northern Light paintings of the Scandinavian/Rotterdam school, that kind of painting with their northern light: the yellow haze, side light, low sunlight, that’s our climactic look. When it gets to the darker period of the day, we have a glow of purplish pink – that’s the diamond’s color. That is a big burden for Rodrigo because that sequence is long, shot over a period of one week or eight days that he has to keep that light consistent for the whole street. That was pretty challenging for him.

Read the complete interview here.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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