A graduate of the directing department of the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, first-time actress Tang Wei had the good fortune to break through under the wing of Oscar-winning director Ang Lee in the film Lust, Caution. The Taiwan-born Lee has one of the most varied resumes of American directors working today. He began with the indie success of his "Father Knows Best" trilogy: Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, and Eat Drink Man Woman. Lee broke into the mainstream with Sense and Sensibility, followed by The Ice Storm, Ride with the Devil, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (for which he received an Oscar nomination), Hulk, and Brokeback Mountain (for which he won the Oscar). I spoke to Lee and his star at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Groucho: You've both acted on stage, but you [Ang Lee] abandoned acting for directing. Would you say you have an affection for actors, a suspicion, a frustration, or all of the above?
Ang Lee: Yes. Yeah. (Pauses for laugh.) I have sympathies and sometimes I don't have sympathies, because I probably know where that comes from. You know, it's harder for them to get away from my scrutiny. Yeah, sometimes I feel like they're Wong Chia and I'm Mr. Yee, just looking at them, having them do this and that. And push them this way and that way, to see the truth of myself. In some ways I feel that I'm tearing them apart. I sort of know how both with directing and also with camera, so to speak, to see kind of myself and to expose myself to the audience. And I sort of hate to do that. It's a big burden on my shoulder; I couldn't stop it. But at the same time, I see them as part of myself. Endearing and close to my heart. I see them as one person, as myself. And this did happen with her, with Tony, with Wang Lee-Hom, at least the three of them. I feel we were breathing together. If they feel a certain way, then I feel a certain way; I just sync with them.
G: And you [Tang Wei] said that you're sort of an alter ego for you [Ang Lee] somewhat in the film. What do you see in your director that comes through in your performance? Did you talk about the intersection there?
Tang Wei: I think every character is from him. Not only me. And Mr. Yee and Kuang Yu Min, the student, the boy, and the Wang Jiazhi. It's the three—it's all come from him. And in my character (laughs) just like on the stage: what he wants, he wants me to do. And when I can't do it, he's angry! (Laughs.) He's so angry. Because he wants me crying. Can't get a lot of emotion to the girl, when he said—the death scene on the stage. And because he before—because he is a good actor on the stage—very good actor, so he thinks I'm not good enough with emotion. And he just call more and more and more and more. And that day is his birthday. (Laughs.) And he wants me to cry. And I always can't cry. Can't.
AL: She—crying's not a problem for her. But that day I was so uptight that (laughs) she couldn't do it—
G: The relationship between the two lead characters—it's hard not taking that literally but also as a political allegory and also maybe an allegory about men and women and how they relate.
AL: Occupy and be occupied, as the short story put it.
G: How did you see that? Was that something you were constantly conscious of bringing out? And did you see it as kind of a hot-blooded cold war between men and women playing out in that story?
AL: Oh, it was set up there; I didn't even have to work for it. It's just there. I don't particularly see myself making political films. But politics are such a crucial part of our lives; you just can't get away from it. That's how I see it. Yeah, in the first read I know this: politics and sex—you can't get away from it.
G: What do you think about the way it says men and women interact in general?
AL: Occupying and being occupied. Give yourself in; falling in love with the occupier. Although it's hard to say who is the occupier. You know. On the surface, he is the dominant one. But think about her: her job, her mission is to track him down and kill him. She's the killer. And, to me, those culminated in the sex scenes. You really get confused who is manipulating—[As to the theme of thwarted love,] I think I'm obsessed. I don't really know what love is. I think if it's definable, it's too small for me. When I think of love, particularly romantic love, I think it's so grand and so mysterious that if we know about, we'd have stopped writing love stories 3000 years ago—it'd be all done. And we'd just follow rules, and it's not so. I guess I make it grander, make it impossible, at times even doomed. It makes you humbled; that's my attitude toward romantic love. We just don't know. It's impossible; it's weird.
G: There's pleasure and there's pain as the flip of side of that in the film. And I think that's true of creating art, as well, and I wonder what in your process was most purely pleasurable and what really tortures you in your process, that you hate about it.
AL: I wish there was only pleasure. (Laughs.) Yeah, they say, "No pain, no gain." What you gain is pleasure. But what you're going through, it's quite torturous to me. I'm still kind of in that. Sometimes I'll have a sleepless night, and in the morning I'll start to cry and I feel like I was in Mr. Yee's torture chamber. (Quietly:) Yeah—
G: You have a reputation for being very meticulous, very precise, very prepared. Is there any downside to being so prepared?
AL: You get stiff. That is something I'm aware of. I think there is nothing wrong about preparation; there's only good about it. But if that means killing intuition, that's no good—killing freshness.
G: So how do you work against that?
AL: You do the research and forget about it. Yeah. That's only preparing yourself to be ready to react to the situation. I think that would be the best approach, for me.
[For Groucho's review of Lust, Caution, click here.]