Ang Lee: Let’s talk about sex?

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By Danica Li

Ang Lee and James Schamus have, in tandem, produced and directed nearly a dozen movies. They count between them a trio of Taiwanese family dramas, a civil war epic, an Austen-derived austerely British comedy of manners, an encounter with the Hulk, and a Chinese-language film about flying warriors and a green sword of destiny that grossed a whopping 200 million bucks worldwide. The duo took the stage at Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall recently, in conversation with the Berkeley English Department's Professor Jeffrey Knapp. The premiere topic of conversation for the first half-hour? Sex.

I diagnose this as program coordinators On the Same Page's gesture at edginess and being "with it" -- or at least as an effort at warding off the buttoned-up stodginess and rehearsed, by-rote deliveries that have plagued past presentations (see: Stephen Hawking, Garry Wills). For starters, the audience was treated to a presentation clip in which a series of explicit splices from 2007's Lust, Caution were cross-cut with characters from Lee's other films expressing distaste and affecting grimaces, a dynamic that ended with a raunchily symbolic big bang (taken from 2003’s Hulk). It was enough to provoke a smattering of laughs from the audience, and was an easy enough segue into the first question: Why do so many of Lee's films involve sex, as it were?

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An unguarded moment from Ang Lee's 2007 film Lust, Caution

Lee, who spoke quietly and book-ended his sentences with long pauses, talked of his interest in sexual repression, and in repression of any kind, given the cultural altitude that he grew up in. It's an interest that's especially evident in Lust, Caution. After all, what many perceive to be the film's flagrant disregard for social decorum so outraged officials in mainland China that it landed the movie -- and its mainland Chinese actress -- in black-list purgatory. Directing a certain segment in 1997’s The Ice Storm, Lee set out with the goal of making the worst sex scene in the history of cinema. All of it's supposed to be funny -- and it is, in as much as it's funny to watch, cringing, as a prepubescent Elijah Wood (as Mikey Carver) gets caught diddling neighbor Wendy (Christina Ricci) by her father (Kevin Kline) -- but it also speaks to Lee's touch with the awkwardness of the adolescent experience, and the framing of the scene by later artistic elements and recurring motifs. "The Ice Storm was the first movie I had artistic intentions with," Lee said, "because it scared me."

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Elijah Wood, on the road to mortifying embarrassment in The Ice Storm

Discussion extended to the American rating system. While Lee and Schamus had objections to Lust, Caution's NC-17 label, it wasn't the first time they'd run up against the MPAA. Actually, the MPAA had confounded them in 1995 by sticking Sense and Sensibility with a G rating, an act that Schamus swore up and down to be a death sentence for any film.

As for the diversity of his output, Lee said that it’s an inevitable result of any long-time directorial career. In directing movies during his earlier years, he found that he had begun to run out of things he knew. As a matter of maintaining artistic flow, he tunneled his attention inward, towards the subconscious. Matters there, he said, were more painful and embarrassing -- as they always are when you dig deep.

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Ang Lee sees what you're up to, naughty devils!

And what movie stars would the director most like to work with? Actually, Lee doesn't really like working with movie stars, Schamus merrily interjected. Well, Lee admitted, it wasn't so much about star caliber as it was about the movie itself. His directorial imperative mandates that all involved serve in the vision of the movie. Instead of him working for the star, the star and everyone else must work for the movie. In this way, Lee said, the movie uses us.

Solutions to solving creative blocs? Lee and Schamus exchanged looks, before the latter confessed to a zest for scarfing Pepperidge Farm cookies and popping acne. Wait it out, the more pragmatic Lee advised.

The fruitfulness of Lee and Schamus's collaboration has extended to a twelfth film, Taking Woodstock. The movie, based on the true life story of Elliot Tiber, chronicles the trials and travails of a closeted, small-town interior designer who offers the use of his musical festival permit to Woodstock organizers, as well as the family-owned motel. Voila: A few weeks later, half a million people show up. It’s set to premiere this August.