NEW YORK — THE first image in Ang Lee's new movie, "Lust, Caution," is of an animal, a watchdog, a German Shepherd. Only after that do we see a human, a man, also standing guard.
When Lee cast Chinese-TV actress Tang Wei to play the lead, in her first movie, he warned her that there would be sex scenes, though he didn't know how explicit they'd be. The novice film actress told him, "I'm leaving myself to you," having no idea how wrenching the experience would be -- that she'd pass out, for instance, when they finished one shoot.
Lee's male lead, Tony Leung, had a different acting profile, a quarter-century of making films that established him as one of Asia's top stars. So Lee felt comfortable loading up the Hong Kong-based Leung with materials to prepare him for his role -- from a Humphrey Bogart film noir to one of Henri Rousseau's moody jungle paintings, "with the predator and prey," Leung noted.
Leung found the painting helpful indeed for understanding his character in "Lust, Caution," who would be both the hunter and hunted. But it also prepared him for working with the exacting Taiwanese American, who was directing his first film since winning the Academy Award for "Brokeback Mountain."
"I think he's the predator," Leung said with a laugh, "I'm the prey."
Setting the trap
"Lust, Caution," a Focus Features release that opens Oct. 5 in Los Angeles, is set in Shanghai during World War II, when much of China was occupied by the Japanese. Leung plays the local secret service head who is collaborating with them and whose main job is ferreting out -- and killing -- his fellow Chinese who are resisting the invaders. Tang Wei plays a naive student actress recruited by the resistance to seduce him and set him up for execution.
Based on a short story by Shanghai-born Eileen Chang, who lived out the end of her life as a recluse in Los Angeles, the Mandarin-language "Lust, Caution," would seem to have little in common with "Brokeback Mountain," with one key exception -- the central role of sex and how it is potentially deadly for the protagonists in each. Even then, the joining of the gay cowboys in "Brokeback" is brief, and mostly clothed, while "Lust, Caution" has earned an NC-17 rating by using its main characters' sexual positioning to depict the evolution of their relationship, one that ends with their limbs, and more, elaborately entwined.
Lee compares that to how the fight scenes set the tone in his 2000 Oscar winner "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," whose writers, Wang Hui Ling and James Schamus, were teamed once again here. In "Lust, Caution," we know that Leung's character, Mr. Yee, is a torturer and killer but never see him on the job, only in the civilized company of his wife and her mahjongg-playing friends, or with the woman from that group who becomes his mistress, with her own deadly mission. Their sex scenes thus become our wordless window into that other side of him, as when he takes Tang Wei's character violently from behind in their first liaison and beats her about the back.
It would be torture, or rape, were she not there to entice him to lower his guard -- so who's to say that she's not the predator? And while the sex act at first reflects their grim political environment -- an occupier and an occupied -- the body language keeps evolving until their final encounter, when they are contorted in each other's limbs, she curled up like a fetus, suggesting that the polar-opposite predators may have experienced more than they counted on, and "that's frightening to them," Lee says.
"Many purposes in the body language," the director adds.
Both "Brokeback" and this movie are based on stories by women in which "sex, making love, is one intimate way to make connections," Lee notes. "But what makes the difference to me is the theme of the movie . . . and therefore the mood of shooting those scenes are . . . drastically different. . . . 'Brokeback Mountain' is like paradise, the whole movie is like the loss of Eden . . . Something pure and unclear happened on Brokeback and they spend the next 20 years trying to go back [and] finally the tragedy comes."
In "Lust, Caution," by contrast, "the sex scenes here remind me of hell, [going] deeper and deeper toward hell," Lee says. "This is a more realistic approach. Truthful. It's not an illusion like 'Brokeback Mountain' . . . It's like hell, it's sinking . . . The shooting feels like hell to me."
Of course, for all his "caution," to borrow from the movie's title, his female lead did not fathom that fate when she won out in what Lee says was a search that spanned "thousands" of actresses.