Producer-director Ang Lee thought he had read almost every book by Chinese author Eileen Chang. Then her short story “Lust, Caution” dropped into his lap about four years ago, and it has haunted him ever since.
“Before one is 25 in Taiwan, you’ve read most of her well-known titles, but this story was an obscure, strange piece: It’s beautiful and cruel in terms of its emotion,” says Lee about a saga loosely based on Chang’s first marriage to a Chinese official who sympathized with the Japanese during WWII.
“Chang put female sexuality against a patriotic war, which is unthinkable to the Chinese,” adds Lee.
Next to getting “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” off the ground, which Lee’s longtime producer-screenwriting partner James Schamus remembers as a “hair-raising, complex epic of independent financing,” “Lust” was a relative snap. “It’s a lot easier when you’re the head of the film studio,” jokes the Focus Features topper, who co-wrote the script with Wang Hui-ling. Schamus secured $12 million for “Lust,” a figure that “is on par with the budget for ‘Ice Storm’ and a bit lower than what was spent on ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ ” he says.
However, Schamus credits producer Bill Kong with crafting a unique
co-production agreement with China’s Sil-Metropole Organization and Shanghai Film Group. Labeled a “cooperation” with China’s film commission, the upside for “Lust” is that it’s treated like a Chinese production and falls outside the country’s quota on U.S. films.
In mainland China, which censors explicit sex in movies, “Lust” is 12 minutes shorter than the U.S. version while in Malaysia it’s nine minutes shy; nevertheless, it’s made more than $40 million overseas.
While the source material’s approach to sex is “all strongly suggested,” according to Lee, the film “makes a dedication to a certain frankness,” adds Schamus. “It’s not sensational and we never marketed the film on its rating scandal. It’s a film for grownups. Sometimes the culture can change quickly and embrace a film like ‘Brokeback’ and sometimes it can do it more incrementally with a film like ‘Lust, Caution.'”
NUTS & BOLTS
Biggest hurdles: “Getting the art direction right,” says Lee. “The Chinese don’t preserve their history. Also, a lot of personal attention had to be paid to training the younger actors to be in the period mode.”
Talent: While Tony Leung Chiu-wai was an obvious choice for the role of Mr. Yee given his star status, Tang Wei, a Beijing drama student, was selected from an open casting call. “We screened 10,000 actors to get to her,” Lee told Variety in October before quipping, “she’s not considered beautiful enough.”