Ang Lee's films vary wildly in scope, subject and setting—think gay cowboys in rural America (Brokeback Mountain), swinging WASPs in 1970s New England (The Ice Storm), a Jane Austen adaptation (Sense and Sensibility), old-school Chinese assassins (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), a CGI rageholic just trying to sort out his daddy issues (Hulk).
But while you likely wouldn't confuse Lee's films the way you might Woody Allen's, say, like Allen's they do all share a common thread: feelings forced to be hidden by circumstance.
Lee's new film, Lust, Caution, keeps the thread stretching with an epic story set mostly in Shanghai during the Japanese
occupation of China from 1937 to 1945.
A group of idealistic students make use of their theatre troupe—seriously. They perform patriotic plays to audiences who respond so positively to their works that the students believe they can make an even greater difference by taking out a Chinese informant to the Japanese (Mr. Yee, played by Tony Leung, a huge star in Asia).
They enlist the shy but gifted actor Wang Jiazhi (Tang Wei) to reinvent herself as the wife of a rich businessman out to seduce Mr. Yee. She does, but as these things do, conspiracy plots or not, the situation becomes complicated when they fall for each other.
Though the film's story is told from Wang's perspective—like many of Lee's films, its source material is a novel, this one by Eileen Chang—it asks a lot of Leung's performance as the enigmatic Mr. Yee.
We never learn why he chose to switch sides, how he rose to this level of power, or why he loves Wang. He's got the detached cool and casual cruelness of a mob boss and spends a lot of time in close-ups, just looking at people.
"Ang is a very demanding director who constantly challenges his actors," emails Leung from China, where he's toplining John Woo's Red Cliff. "For certain scenes, he'd ask me to just to use my eyes and in others, to just use my voice."
Yee is a very guarded person—we know he's married (to Joan Chen), and what he does, sort of (security?), but he only speaks when he needs to and acts only when required. The audience has to work hard to understand the attraction between Yee and Wong as well as his motives - especially the first time they sleep together, when he smacks her around and she digs it.
"A scene of courtship," says Leung. It's easy to see why she is into him—he's a big shot who can keep her away from the turmoil lurking outside her door, plus he buys her mad bling in the form of a six-carat pink diamond.
But it's implied that Yee is a serial philanderer—his wife never even tosses a suspicious glance Wang's way, despite the cloud of intrigue hanging over the Mahjongg table—so understanding why this elegant young woman keeps his interest longer than any other elegant young woman is a bit of a challenge.
"Well, Mr. Yee is a challenging role for me to play. He is a mysterious character who is distant yet ever present in the story," writes Leung, who you might have seen starring in In the Mood for Love and Hero with Jet Li.
"For most of the film, we only see him through the eyes of Tang Wei's character. I think Mr. Yee had fallen in love with Wang—a revelation which even surprises Mr. Yee," he adds. "As the head of the secret service, he believed his job precluded him from falling in love and yet he did."
There it is—feelings which are forced into hiding by circumstance. Sometimes it's your wife, sometimes it's politics, sometimes it's a plot to kill you. There's also a dichotomy in Leung's own assessment of the film. "It is a tale of predator and prey," he says. Then he adds, "Actually, I see Lust, Caution as a love story first and foremost."
Lust, Caution opens Friday, October 26. See Movie Times, for more information