Ang Lee has made a habit of teaching Hollywood how little it knows about audiences, proving broad crowds would embrace a gay Western (Brokeback Mountain) and show up for a subtitled martial arts flick (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). With his new film, the NC-17-rated, Mandarin-language spy thriller Lust, Caution, the Oscar-winning director is once again ignoring the rules of commercial filmmaking.
TIME: You've said the three sex scenes in the film were harder to shoot than the martial arts scenes in Crouching Tiger. Why?
Lee: I'm a shy human being. I don't make pornos so I'd never done that before. To verbalize the feelings and lead the actors through those acts and witness how much they devote to it, it's very painful. Usually we don't go there. I don't intend to go there again. After half a day's shooting we had to stop, it was so exhausting. You're so hyper... emotionally, sexually, everything is so charged up.
Porn is plentiful, so why are scenes depicting sexuality with emotion so rare in films?
Most sex scenes are about covering things up, rather than exposing. It's very technical. It's a function you have to get over with so you can get on with the story. We give our best shot in digging into what the characters are going through. The sex scenes are pivotal parts of the story.
Did you ever consider altering your film to avoid the NC-17 rating?
When I was making it, I didn't really care. After the film was done, [Focus Features CEO] James Schamus explained to me what NC-17 means, the distribution, the advertisement, what you're gonna lose. He explained it and that was that. He never said anything else. Everybody at Focus got kind of excited about taking on the battle. They kept saying this year we have other films that will make money.
Is it possible people will go see this film because they're titillated by the rating?
There are people who know about me who will be curious. That's a plus, but the plus is 10 points and the minus is 80 points.
The film takes place in Shanghai during World War II. It's based on a short story by Eileen Chang which is much more subtle in describing the relationships between the characters. Why did you choose to be so explicit?
I'm not a translator of the author. I took a hint from her. To me the boldness of the story was unprecedented, particularly against the backdrop of the most macho, glorious, patriotic war against the Japanese. It was very daring.
This was your lead actress Tang Wei's first film. Were you concerned by the demands of the role?
Yes and no. The thrill actors get, the liberation, to reach the other side of themselves, it's very exciting, very liberating. They learn a lot about themselves. So often Tang Wei said to me when I asked her is she was OK, "What are you talking about?"
If making this movie was so emotionally taxing, why did you do it?
Because you're not supposed to. Truth can be painful and frightening. Lots of people, whether you're making a movie or doing a painting, you feel compelled to be honest. It's uncomfortable, but I feel compelled to communicate with other people.