Words of Caution
Bill Kong: This movie is a great love story, with so many different aspects in it for audiences to be excited by; it has everything I could hope to have in a movie I make. As a producer, I'm always looking for projects that can travel beyond Asian boundaries.
Rodrigo Prieto: Visually, I knew this would be an interesting project, and very different from when Ang and I did Brokeback Mountain. The story captivated me. It is very touching, though not in an easy romantic way.
Bill Kong: Eileen Chang is one of the iconic writers of our time in China. She wrote of changing times in her country. Hopefully our film will renew attention to her writing.
Wang Hui Ling: Eileen Chang was a born star. In her youth, she could cause a stir with the way she dressed; in her later years, as a self-styled recluse, her sense of dry humor was no less impressive.
The momentous transitions of China from a feudal society to a republic through two world wars permeated her writings, not in epic outbursts but as cool commentaries of a keen observer of her times. Though she once remarked that she wrote essentially for the people of Shanghai, in the end she had to leave Shanghai for a faraway land. Her last years were spent in California.
Ang Lee: I don't know of any other modern-day Chinese writer who is more revered, loved, and argued over. This short story is different writing than her other works. I believe that in many ways it's her own story. She was inspired by movies, and structured the story as a movie; we just had to fill in the spaces she laid out.
Wang Hui Ling: She loved movies, and I think she would have enjoyed our work on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Ang Lee shares with Eileen Chang the same fascination over creating their own art from an intimate mix of eastern and western cultures.
James Schamus: Ang has been well-acquainted with her works for a long time, and had this story in mind for years. We had always talked about his making a Chinese-language film after finishing Brokeback Mountain, and this material allowed him to take the themes of love and death from his earlier films to a more intense level. Wong Chia Chi's own identity is subject not only to love and betrayal, but to politics and history.
Hearkening back to Sense and Sensibility, Eileen Chang is like Jane Austen in many ways, writing about manners against a backdrop of a transforming country. She explored Chinese culture, language, and history – including the moments when women found their voices.
Bill Kong: I feel that "Lust, Caution" is her most important work; it's hypnotic. But we had to find the right person to play Wong Chia Chi.
James Schamus: She had to be somebody emotionally brave enough to take on the role, like Maria Schneider was for Last Tango in Paris. The character finds the truth of her life, going to places she didn't know existed until she gets there.
Ang Lee: We saw hundreds of actresses. When I saw Tang Wei, I thought, "She has the face of the Southern Chinese lady," which we needed. When I met her, I could tell she had the temperament as well – which we also needed, to match the character of Wong Chia Chi that Chang Ailing [Eileen Chang] had created. By the end of the audition, it was clear to me that she had great potential to play the many sides of the character. I looked at her, and I believed in her.
James Schamus: She had the ability, which is extraordinary. When I first met Tang, I found her to be vivacious, smart, and funny. During the hair and make-up tests, we would see Wong Chia Chi, not Tang Wei. She had already transformed herself into what Eileen Chang had first envisioned. As the shoot progressed, she only further inhabited the character – and in a sustained manner.
Bill Kong: Ang wanted somebody fresh, but also someone who could act. We were blessed to discover Tang, because she is already in her 20s.
Ang Lee: The young actors in the film were learning about their grandparents' China, which was touching to me. China has been through a lot, and things get lost; if this generation doesn't connect with the past, which one will? We wanted to help make that happen. It was part of our mission.
When I'm leading a whole group of people, they need to have the courage to expose themselves, so audiences can see something real; that's the beauty of art.
Wang Leehom: Ang is completely committed in his belief in what he is doing, so you follow his lead and have to let yourself just go with him.
Ang Lee: We did have a little hesitation in casting Tony. Although he is one of the best, if not the best, actors in the Chinese film industry today, he usually plays charming good guys. But he was the one actor I always wanted to work with.
Tony Leung: I was inspired by the screenplay, because it took a short story that was good to begin with and enriched it to such a large extent.
When Ang – a director I have always admired – first contacted me, he told me that he wanted to create a Tony Leung on-screen that you have never seen before. I'd been looking for that myself, but I needed someone to help me do it.
James Schamus: Tony's fans, who are legion not just in Asia but around the world, have never seen him playing a figure who's on the edge of an abyss like Mr. Yee is.
Bill Kong: Nobody could have played this part except Tony, who put other projects on hold to make Lust, Caution. As director and actor, Ang and Tony had a real chemistry.
Wang Leehom: I would come to the set on days I wasn't needed just to watch Tony work. I saw how he has both gentleness and this extreme power that comes from within. Watching him do take after take, I learned a lot.
Tony Leung: Ang can guide actors into doing things which they didn't think they were capable of, and to levels they haven't reached before. He makes very strict demands of actors; at first I felt it was impossible. But he makes comparable demands of himself. He is so well-prepared.
When I had watched his films in the past, I wondered why the actors performed so well. Now, after working with him, I understand that it's because he teaches you and gives you so much information that the character gets multi-layered.
We started shooting a scene where Yee cries, and after the first take, I looked over at him and he was crying.
The performance he wants is so precise; at the same time, he gives actors so many freedoms and says not to look at the playback. So they give their best performances. The working atmosphere is a good one.
Rodrigo Prieto: We got to a comfort level with the actors where they really gave themselves over to the project. We felt that confidence, and I think a level of intimacy among the actors and the crew was achieved which will play very powerfully on-screen. There was no holding back.
Tony Leung: I felt comfortable acting with Tang. She worked very hard, and is very sensitive. I love to work with actors who don't yet have a pattern, and she would get very into character, so I wouldn't always know what she was going to do next.
Rodrigo Prieto: Bit by bit, I saw Tang disappearing into the character. She transformed herself, and I was amazed.
Ang Lee: She had to carry a movie – her first. It was a lot of pressure, and I think she did a fantastic job.
Tony Leung: Yee is such a challenging character. I read a lot about the era and its people, and Yee became a blend of several real-life top intelligence agents from history. I saw him as having had a lot of ideals and ambition initially to do something for his country, but now his work is hellish for him and he internalizes everything. He did what he had to do to survive.
There are also different facets of human nature to him. There is love in Yee, but there is also self-denial; he tells himself that he has no feelings, because he will have anyone killed – friends, superiors, old classmates.
It seemed to me that Yee treats Wong the way he does in order to reaffirm his own existence; as Ang said, "Love and torture co-exist." But through her, he finds something innocent and very human that he wanted to avoid.
Rodrigo Prieto: During pre-production, Ang – who is very specific about everything – told me that he wanted to find a "killer light" to use on Mr. Yee at specific moments. Since Yee's job includes torturing suspects, I thought of a flickering amber glow in his eyes, reminiscent of the glow of the red-hot embers of a poker used to burn people. We rigged some Christmas bulbs together, and reflected the light on Tony Leung during an early scene relating to his work, and then again during some intense exchanges between him and Tang Wei. It added a touch of insanity to Tony's gaze.
Ah Lee: In the past, when I worked with Tony, it was always about making him look handsome. On Lust, Caution, for the first time, it was not about that. At one point, Rodrigo said that Tony's make-up had to be changed because under the lighting Tony was appearing too terrifying.
Tony Leung: I have never had make-up like this, making me look older; it helped a lot. I am the kind of actor who acts from the outside in, starting that way to go into character. The films I've made with Wong Kar Wai were mostly period films, so when I wore Yee's clothes, I automatically returned to the tempo of those films – which Lust, Caution isn't like.
Once, Tang and I were doing a scene walking together, and the In the Mood for Love song popped into my head, so I started thinking of Maggie Cheung! I asked Ang to play some other music that he thought would help me get back on track, and he did.
Ang would give me body language – posture and gesture – and voice directions; I vocalized from different spots inside of me, for a voice not my own and not from previous films. Mandarin Chinese is not my mother tongue, so I had to work on that, too.
Wong Sai Kit: Ang will notice every minute detail.
Joan Chen: It was wonderful watching Ang direct. He is focused, honest, precise, and thoughtful. He is confident but never cocky. As a matter of fact, he amazed me with his sense of humility.
Wang Leehom: On the set, I never saw him write anything down; no shot lists or storyboards. Everything is in his head.
Ah Lee: He can spot very minor differences; "Is this the same as yesterday?" He will make requests according to what the scene requires – say, stronger or softer eyebrows.
Lin Tai: He gave specific instructions on the different stages of the characters, like what length the hairstyles had to be. Tang's hair is straight when she is a student; when she is more mature, it is curly and more feminine.
Lui Fung Shan: Tang's costuming, with her character's transformations, was a challenge. So were all the extras; we handled every one of them as if they were a lead actor. Ang would ask if the fabric and buttons we were using had in fact been available during the time period depicted.
Ah Lee: For Tang, the make-up during Wong's student days is very light and natural. During the war years, she wears no make-up. When she becomes Mrs. Mak later, she has very mature make-up.
Rodrigo Prieto: In terms of the color scheme, we wanted Hong Kong to have a little more vibrance than Shanghai; when the younger characters are in Hong Kong, they still have a little innocence. By the end of their time in Hong Kong, they lose it.
For Shanghai, we wanted a film noir look, yet realistic. Wong is role-playing, so there has to be at least a touch of style. But what she's doing in Shanghai is as real as it gets.
Bill Kong: Wang Leehom is the number one pop idol in Asia. Ang saw something in his eyes that told him Wang could play Kuang Yu Min.
James Schamus: He may be a virtual neophyte as an actor, but he's already a performer of considerable resources and experiences. He came totally prepared, and got to the levels that Ang required.
Wang Leehom: Just meeting an icon like Ang Lee, who crosses borders among languages and generations, at the audition would have been enough. What I found was that Ang is so willing to teach actors. My training had a solid foundation because I was in the company of the director. I started doing research six months before shooting, beginning with calligraphy. Ang knew that music from that time would help me a lot, since I'm a musician. I got steeped in what a college student from that time would be reading and listening too, and all of us playing the theater troupe members had group activities.
Ang Lee: I liked his aura right away. It was rewarding working with him because he watched very carefully and got more confident as an actor as we went along.
Wang Leehom: Working on Lust, Caution, I got a real education about World War II and Chinese culture, and I think audiences will, too. Kuang is a passionate idealist whom I related to strongly. For students at that time, there was a fire in the belly. My grandparents helped me to understand what it was like. My grandmother still cries when she talks about how her whole family was murdered by Japanese soldiers.
The way my grandfather speaks and carries himself gave me a point of reference, and when I first put on the tunic suit, I looked very much like him.
Kuang goes through a lot in the story, all for the greater good. But there's a certain point where there's no turning back for him. He channels his passion into his patriotism. Ang and I talked about his restraint, which becomes like denial.
As almost newcomer actors, Tang Wei and I were in this together, like Wong and Kuang are. But we had Ang to guide us.
Joan Chen: I wanted to be directed by Ang regardless of how big or small the part was. For me, it would be meaningful to contribute to his vision and to see him practice his craft.
I had come so close to playing the lead in The Wedding Banquet 15 years ago, but there was a casting requirement issue from the funding source. When I ran into Ang by chance last year after not having seen him for a decade or so, he mentioned that he had a part for me to play in his next film, adapted from one of my favorite writers, Eileen Chang.
Although I had read most of her novels, I had not read "Lust, Caution." I talked to my mother, who has read every single piece of Eileen Chang's work. She told me, "Oh, it's a tiny part, not very meaningful at all." She didn't think I should do it, but I told her I had to do this because it's an Ang Lee film.
Reading the novella, I found that it was a small part; my mother was right, and the screen time was limited in the script as well. But my instinct as an actress told me that if Mrs. Yee knows what is happening with her husband, then the role would inherently became more complex for me to play.
James Schamus: Joan's own enormous intelligence – as an actress and a director herself – was necessary to subtly convey all of Mrs. Yee's qualities; certainly, the character is a mahjong-playing gossip, but there's so much more below the surface, both in terms of her and how she relates to Mr. Yee.
Joan Chen: The experience taught me a method of playing a supporting role; I found that if I imagined my character as the central protagonist in every moment of her screen time, I could bring vitality and dimension to her.
Lust, Caution was filmed on location across Asia. The first leg of the 118-day shoot was a few days in Malaysia, in the cities of Ipoh and Penang. This was followed by a month in Hong Kong.
Location filming in Shanghai necessitated the temporary removal of over 3,000 residents' air conditioners. Much of the filming was at a new facility built at the existing Shanghai Film Studios. There, some of the street sets that were built to scale for the movie are being retained for future productions.
Bill Kong: When movies are looking to shoot in the most modernized city in the world, they come to Shanghai. Even during the Japanese occupation, Shanghai was the most cosmopolitan city in the world, more so than New York City. There were many different races of people living there, from Mafia members to White Russians. Also, in terms of espionage during World War II, there was no place like it. In Lust, Caution, it all comes to life before your eyes.
James Schamus: There were so many shifting alliances. The daily lives of the characters in the story are informed by those questions of where to be, who to fight for or against, and what was real and what wasn't.
The re-creation of Shanghai at Shanghai Film Studios was probably the largest set I've ever been on; you would stand there and look up one entire street, then down another entire street. The crew dressed 182 different storefronts, stocked them, and then aged them all, so they wouldn't look brand-new.
Nanjing Road, where the jewelry shop sequences are set, was part of the wealthiest and most protected part of Shanghai during the 1941/1942 period of WWII that we are depicting. There is English-language signage because this is where English-speaking foreigners would have gone for shopping and leisure. Down the street, there is Chinese-language signage; Nanjing Road was where the two communities met.
The café where Wong goes to make that phone call and then wait is a re-creation of an actual café that was on that street corner in Shanghai in the 1940s. The craftsmanship of the crew was extraordinary. As a result, Ang could create the reality that he wanted for the sequences.
Ang Lee: Re-creating Jane Austen's era [for Sense and Sensibility] was easier...
Bill Kong: With changes in China's openness, we were able to make it work, and replicate the city as it was with the sets that our crew built. The manpower and the resources were there, and the Shanghai government supported us; not just in terms of money, but in terms of dedication. Over the past several years, China has become more friendly to filmmakers and more open to the world than it once was.
Rodrigo Prieto: I'd worked well with foreign crews before, but ours on Lust, Caution was really top-notch. We tend to think, "Well, if it's not Hollywood crews…," but there is a big industry in China and there are many quality workers.
Joan Chen: The crew was a great mix of people from the West and from Hong Kong. They adapted to each other's styles and brought out the best in each other. It was exciting to watch them collaborate in different languages and dialects to bring this film to fruition.
Wong Sai Kit: We wanted what was on-screen to look and feel like the real Shanghai of those times, and the real Hong Kong of 1938. Very few things from that era in Shanghai are intact. We found what we could, and some artifacts had to be worked on.
Of what we made, the double-decker bus for 1938 was most special to me. There were so many technicalities to its interior. We had to make sure it could move, and would not flip over.
Bill Kong: I'd say the most difficult sequences to shoot were – the mahjong scenes!
Joan Chen: When I read the script, I never imagined that the mahjong scenes could be filmed the way that Ang and Rodrigo shot them. It felt as if we were moving swords and daggers, or candies and cupcakes, instead of mahjong tiles.
Bill Kong: They've rarely been filmed this seriously and accurately, which was important because this game is part of our Chinese culture and heritage.
Joan Chen: I am now a full-fledged Chinese – having finally learned how to play mahjong in Shanghai, after living in the States for 26 years.
I never had as much fun waiting for a set to be lit as I did with Tang Wei and the other actresses in those scenes; we began to play in between shots.
Bill Kong: We spent two weeks shooting one mahjong scene alone. Ang had to shoot a lot of coverage, and I knew he and [editor] Tim Squyres would have a hard time cutting it.
James Schamus: It was so hard on the continuity people. Then, in the editing room, Ang and Tim kept having to reduce the number of cuts in the scene. It took several tries…
Tony Leung: Beginning with the first day of work, I felt that every member of Ang's team was trying their best and using their talents to the fullest to make this movie. On other films I've done, maybe 2-4 out of 10 would have that attitude. On Lust, Caution, it was every single person, which is how filmmaking should feel. I didn't want the shoot to end.
Wang Leehom: You could feel the strength of the whole group, this great team. It made me realize that I am interested in doing more films, and it also inspired me for when I went back into the studio to record.
Bill Kong: For all of us, every day was like going to school with Professor Ang Lee. Each day, we all learned something new and then graduated with a master's degree in our field.
James Schamus: In Lust, Caution, Ang dramatizes a transcendent idea advanced by Eileen Chang; a human being finds herself in a situation beyond her control, but takes ownership of it.
Ang Lee: The title doesn't just refer to love and sex, but to life and art. "Lust for life"; "caution in society." And it's all from a woman's point of view.
" 'Tang Wei…Who Is Tang Wei?' "
Q: Had you read Eileen Chang's writings – or at least the short story that inspired Lust, Caution – prior to filming?
Tang Wei: Even before I joined the film, I liked reading Eileen Chang's work, because I find it very special. I read her stories to my mother. Most people have seen other, more famous stories of hers. When I did read this one ["Lust, Caution"], I thought, "Wow, this is so different from her other stories." I read the story before the script.
Q: Were you familiar with Ang Lee's movies?
TW: Not very, no, but I am now. When I was in college, I would see a lot of [older] Western [i.e., American] and European movies; Ingmar Bergman is my favorite director.
Q: How was it working with this director, even before you started playing Wong Chia Chi?
TW: Ang Lee said when he saw me for the first time, he felt, "This is Wong Chia Chi." At the audition, I was nervous and had a fever, but he and [co-screenwriter] Wang Hui Ling were friendly; Ang poured tea for me. He was very kind, no big-director ego. By the end, I felt I had found someone I could talk from the heart to.
I found out he was a very good director, because he gives actors a lot of information about the characters – homework, and a lot of training. Language training – English, and also Shanghai dialect and Cantonese dialect. Also, etiquette lessons, voice lessons, mahjong lessons. You get close to the role. I prefer getting specific instructions.
He gave me novels to read that Wong would [have] read back then, and a lot of old movies to see [that she would have watched] – like Greta Garbo's. I like every film of hers, and My Fair Lady and All About Eve. Wong is very influenced by films, and maybe in her heart she wants to become like an actress in a movie. Ang told me not to just focus on Wong and how she would do, but how the girls at that time would do and act.
With the other actors as the students, I played sports and read together, just like [they would have] in school. We called Ang our "principal" because of the homework.
Ang and found some things in my background the same between me and Wong; he was so surprised. Like her, I like to play on the stage – my favorite before this film. Very few experience in theater, but I'm so proud of it; you can express all your feeling on the stage, it's so comfortable – and, no director! [laughs] Before the film started, I said to myself, "I must have [a role in] one play one year, at least." But this year, I had no chance.
I felt no boundaries working with Ang. I feel he can discover your potential that you don't know you have.
Q: You're playing a character who herself is playing a role for much of the movie. What was your process like…?
TW: It was very complicated. So I would not think about Wong Chia Chi but about Mak Tai Tai [Mrs. Mak, whom Wong is pretending to be in the story]. I could not think, "I am Wong Chia Chi as Mak Tai Tai," I was just thinking, "I am Mak Tai Tai." When we finish for the day, I would go back to being Wong Chia Chi, not Tang Wei. [It became,] "Tang Wei…who is Tang Wei?" [laughs]
Q: Did Ang Lee encourage the actors to try different approaches?
TW: Ang changed his mind about things in the film many times after seeing how the actors worked together. If you were not very careful, you cannot find the difference. But the actors would know, because he would always tell us; "I think we can do this another way…" Yesterday's things, thrown away; think of another way, and let's do it.
Most of the focus is on me and Tony Leung, but Ang changed it [in the editing process] so that Wang Leehom had more things. It made the story more dynamic. The film goes deeper for all of us.
Q: How much did the WWII-era costumes and make-up help you get into character?
TW: The dresses were so beautiful…the cheongsam styles…The first time I tried one on, I thought, "Oh my God, what do I do? Tell me how to walk." [laughs] Because I have no dresses, I just have jeans and T-shirts and sneakers. Now? It changed; I want dresses and high-heel shoes. "Come on, give me a dress…"
During the shooting, every day when I would sit in front of the make-up mirror, I wouldn't dare to see myself without make-up because I had to see the character. Once I had the eyes, the eyebrows, the face, the mouth, the hair, everything – okay. [laughs] I'd feel, "Oh, I can go outside now."
Near the last day, I saw myself in the mirror and I felt it was not me. The character wanted to hold me, like the roots of a tree.
Q: How difficult was the shoot, physically?
TW: It was very cold where we shot and I think I am afraid of the cold; I get sick. But during the shoot, I was so surprised; I didn't get sick. The crew members said to me, "Tang Wei, please get sick so we can have a day off." This was a joke; they worked so hard. I miss everybody.
Ang did get sick during the shooting, but he never stopped, never rested. When we finished work every day, we would rest. But he never did. I could always feel what he was thinking about, just as he could always feel what I was thinking about.
To get everything ready – make-up, hair, dress – was 3-4 hours every day. From Malaysia to Shanghai, our shoot was 118 days, and I was [working for] 114 days. I slept maybe 3 hours a day, sometimes 5-6. We had one day off a week. But I never felt very tired. In front of the camera, it was exciting, and I was ready.
It's very interesting, with my body; when I finished the film, I got on a plane to Beijing. And the plane touched the ground, and I thought, "Oh my God, I feel sick." I thought, my body knows, now you can get sick. I had a very high fever and was exhausted for one month. And it was the same for Ang.
Since I was in almost every scene, I thought I could imagine how the movie was. But when I saw the movie for the first time, everything was different. Leehom was seeing it too, and when it finished I said to him, "Please just sit here with me for a while."
When you see the film, you will see a girl follow her heart and make the most difficult decisions and transform herself. She goes from innocence through almost everything a woman would go through in her life, and realizes who she is. I envy Wong Chia Chi. She is bold, and has no regrets. I hope I can live like her.
Q: So, in one word, what was making the movie like?
TW: It was magic.