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The Reeler Blog

Ang-ry Young Men

By S.T. VanAirsdale

Any half-sentient premiere reporter will freely acknowledge what an exhilarating mixed bag the red carpet is. Giddy, surly, surreal, often within mere seconds of each other, the events require the patience of Job and the instinct of David, especially in New York, where space and time are eternally at a premium and a paparazzo would cut his own mother's throat if it would clear a sight line to an A-lister (or, better yet, if said A-lister got any closer to call 9-1-1). It's not as competitive as it is literally psychotic, the closest thing New York media have to kill-or-be-killed and other Lockean laws of the jungle.


Caution ahead: Tang Wei and Ang Lee at Thursday's New York premiere of Lust, Caution (Photos: WireImage)

A particularly volatile chemistry of these elements confirmed Thursday's premiere of Lust, Caution as my favorite red-carpet event of the year. Ang Lee's epic, foreign-language, NC-17 period drama won the top prize at Venice and scorched Toronto before landing last night at the Sunshine Theater on Houston Street; guest Edie Falco recounted her history of sex scenes for us; Brett Ratner and Sex and the City co-starlet Kristen Davis pretended we didn't exist. But it wasn't until Lee, his leading lady Tang Wei and co-producer James Schamus ran the press gantlet with equal parts grace, annoyance and exasperation that things got truly exciting, leading to a sequence of events I will hold dear to my heart long after I've disgustedly changed careers or sobbed through tonight's Darjeeling Limited premiere, whichever comes first:

1) SCHAMUS KEEPS IT REAL. The Focus Features godhead has famously refused to make apologies for releasing Lust, Caution with its torrid sex scenes intact, thus provoking the MPAA ratings board to slap back with its adults-only NC-17. If ever there were a time to do it, this would probably be it, with a world-famous director like Lee coming off the Oscar-winning success of Brokeback Mountain. I asked Schamus if the strategy was a political act as much as a preservation of Lee's artistic integrity.

"I think it is," he replied. "It's time for us in the American culture to own up to the fact that grown-ups can have grown-up entertainment, and there shouldn't be a stigma to it. If there's going to be a stigma, it should be to a culture that allows movies where you're mutilating and torturing hundreds of people to be available to children, and yet a masterpiece by a filmmaker like Ang Lee gets an NC-17. That said, I have no problem saying to grown-ups, 'This is a movie for you.' "

2) TANG WEI, MY HERO. Eric Kohn's Reeler review compared Lust, Caution to the Jean-Pierre Melville French Resistance classic Army of Shadows, but I spot an even closer resemblance to Notorious, with newcomer Tang Wei taking on Ingrid Bergman's role of tormented, noble-minded Mata Hari. Tang's character, Wong Chia Chi, is the greater idealist, and thus more susceptible to the brooding, sadistic charm of Mr. Yee (played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai), the WWII-era Chinese traitor she seduces with the intent to assassinate. And by "seduce," I technically mean, "stick Tony Leung's dick in her" in the most explicit sex scenes of any mainstream film since Shortbus (another great premiere, but I digress).

But it's Tang's work outside the bedroom -- in virtually every scene ("We shot 118 days," Lee told me later. "She worked 114 days") -- that truly resonate. Leaping effortlessly from Wong to her espionage alter ego Mak Tai Tai in scene after scene and flashback after flashback, Tang evokes an exquisite weariness compelled by love and war. As he did with outsiders from The Ice Storm to Brokeback Mountain, Lee obscures her passion's true source, entrusting the viewer to dig out their complex clues. It's virtually impossible to believe Tang has never been in a film before; her duality is at once studied, classical and utterly convincing.

Alas, all anyone wants to ask about is the sex. Is Tang frustrated that her fine work between the sheets overshadows her compelling nuance between the lines? "I think if the audience can watch the film, they will not think about it," she told me. Then she smiled, nodded. "Thank you." And moved on. No, Tang -- thank you.

Ang Lee browses the scene of a brewing race riot on Houston Street

3) STARS MAKE A RED CARPET GOOD, BUT RACIAL TENSION MAKES IT GREAT. No sooner had Tang blown me and my decimated ego off then I felt a nudge at my right. That's common, really; the carpet's a claustrophobe's nightmare, this time with seven writers squeezed into a space made for four (a portion of which was blocked by a security guard, further compromising the area). But no one complains; it won't get you anywhere, and anyway, you don't have time.

Suddenly the nudge became a shove accompanied by an insect clicking noise. I turned to find a professional photographer -- an Asian man -- snapping photos of Tang. "What are you doing?" I asked. He looked down at his camera, studying his shots. "Hey, listen," I told him. "The photographers' well is over there." I pointed across the carpet, at least three-quarters of which had been apportioned for cameras. It was crowded, naturally. He glanced over, then raised his camera again. "Dude," I said, "you wanna get here an hour early like the rest of us, then you can get your shot. But we're doing a job. Get the fuck out of here."

He took a few more photos before stepping away. Minutes later he returned on my left-hand side, where a woman was interviewing Tang in Chinese. This time he was joined by two more photographers, younger Asian men, all but climbing over me and my colleagues from Radar and New York Magazine.

"What the fuckare you doing?" I said, pointing once again. "That is the photographers' well. You belong there. We can't get our jobs done with--"

"We're doing a job, too," one replied. The other muttered something in Chinese.

"Not here, you're not. You don't see us over there. We got here at 6. You're an hour late. I'm not gonna ask you again." Now, you've seen enough of me on ReelerTV to know that I'd be the underdog in 100 out of 100 fistfights. But after two and a half years of dealing with animals with cameras at these events, I couldn't take anymore.

"You guys, hey," the security guard shouted. "Pipe down."

"We're doing an interview in Chinese," the woman said as Tang walked away. "Can't you hear that?"

"I don't give a shit -- these guys need to back off."

The woman, the older photographer and the Chinese-speaking photographer finally went around to the photo well. The other photographer stayed behind, lowering his camera and peering on tiptoe at Lee, who was almost to the miserably congested writers' well. I prepared my notes when I heard the voice to my left: "White trash!"

I paused, processed. Did that just happen? I turned to the photographer. "What did you just say?" He ignored me, continuing to stare at Lee. "Did you just call me 'white trash'?"

His eyebrows arched a bit. "Are you fucking kidding me?" I said. He didn't break his stare. I think I winced before telling him not to fuck with me -- the lamest possible comeback, I know, but the only expression I could summon in the face of such immediate, lazy, unalloyed stupidity. A few seconds later he departed, saying something indistinguishable as he passed behind my back and disappeared into the Houston Street throng. I shook my head and got my cracker ass ready to interview Ang Lee.

4) LEE KEEPS IT REAL. My white guilt in overdrive, I prepared for Lee and thought how existentially touched he would be if I looked deep into his eyes and queried: "Ang, you're a cross-cultural superstar with one of the most versatile careers in cinema. Am I white trash?" Or, "You could have followed Brokeback Mountain with literally any project you wanted. Do I look like white trash to you?"

Instead I curbed my self-indulgence and adapted my Tang Wei inquiry a bit. "Ang, both this film and Brokeback Mountain are rich, brilliantly made character studies, yet all we seem to talk about is the sex. Isn't it kind of frustrating after a while?"

"Yes," Lee replied without a moment's hesitation. "It's OK to talk about sex; it is, after all, called Lust, Caution. Lust is a big part. But there's caution in bed, too. So in a way, it's sort of the core of the noir, so to speak. But if all they're talking about are the sex scenes, it's a shame, because I think the parts outside the bedroom are a lot sexier then when they're actually in bed."

And for a rookie, Tang is the real deal, right?

"I don't think she had a clue," he said, referring to the enormity of her responsibility. "Maybe she thought all movies are like that. I think she'll work with some of the best filmmakers in more ideal situations, but she probably had no idea. She'd just walk in naturally and try to give her best, and there's this constant requirement to do this and do that, and if you're not good enough... I think she gave everything she had. But I don't think she had a clue. The results, to me, are pretty miraculous."

Indeed, so miraculous that it deserved a reception as stunning as Thursday's. It's not just any red carpet on which one learns something new about himself; it's an Ang Lee red carpet. I will fight no more forever.

Posted at September 28, 2007 11:26 AM

Comments (2)

Cracker

Fabulous! Now you're all set for the next John Waters red-carpet event!

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