In March 2006, within a week of winning the Best Director Oscar for Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee was already preparing his follow-up, an adaptation of a short story by Chinese writer Eileen Chang. ”I’ve known the material for quite a while,” says Lee. ”I put it off for years, thinking, ‘This will never work.’ But then I felt compelled to pick it back up. It’s haunting. It rips your heart out.”
Set in 1940s Japanese-occupied Shanghai, Lust, Caution is an espionage thriller about a radical student (newcomer Tang Wei) on a mission to seduce — and murder — a politician (Hero‘s Tony Leung) who has collaborated with the occupiers. Twin Peaks alumna Joan Chen plays Leung’s wife, an elusive grande dame who may or may not be aware of her husband’s adultery. It’s one of the few films to depict this chapter of Chinese history, and to Lee’s amazement, the current regime went out of its way to support him.
Which is not to say that making his first Chinese-language movie in six years was a breeze. ”When Ang goes back to China now, being the first nonwhite person to win Best Director, he carries an enormous weight of expectation,” says James Schamus, Lee’s collaborator since 1992. How did he cope? ”You do the best you can and still take risks. I didn’t play it safe because,” Lee says, laughing, ”there’s no safe ground after Brokeback anyway!”