Director Spotlight: Ang Lee

(Originally posted on 10/23/17)

李安 – Ang Lee (pictured here at 28), one of my personal favorite artists, thrives in the intersection of Western and Eastern culture. He is a master in blurring the boundaries between west and east, classic and modern, China and Taiwan, male and female, and more. His life experience has clearly informed his art. Together they embrace the philosophical paradoxes in life, and find a worldwide audience. In honor of his 63rd birthday today, here’s a brief recount of his signature works in a remarkable career that is still going strong.

His first three films, Pushing Hands (1992), The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), while not technically connected, are fittingly referred together as the “Family/Father Trilogy”. They were co-written by Lee and his long time working partner James Schamus, produced with Taiwanese government funding, and more importantly, drawn from Lee’s own life experience. While a Chinese family is always centered in the stories, Lee introduced the American/Western influences into the background, setting up the inevitable conflicts.

The pitch perfect Sihung Lang starred in all three films as a classic Chinese father figure caught in the middle of a family drama. While the characters vary, his performance grounds the soapy aspects of the plots, which could be attributed to Lee’s inexperience at the time. Through him, Lee presents a gentle and loving look into the older generation’s struggle with their more “worldly” younger descendants, especially when in a more conservative culture. Even more remarkable are the smart twists carefully weaved inside the scripts, showing Lee’s admiration of the wisdom of the father, and the classic Chinese philosophy he represented: despite the cultural and generational shock, the families are always able to hold together by adapting and blending with the force like a Taichi master.

As the movies were not widely popular in the west, I couldn’t find a youtube video of the opening of Pushing Hands, so here’s a quick description: An old Asian man is practicing Taichi in a standard American house, while his American daughter-in-law sits still inside another room in front of a computer, trying to write. The shots make it clear who is the more restless person of the two despite her lacking of movement at all. At the same time, the contrast of the Asian old man and his environment hinted at the implicit uneasiness he could be feeling. In a few opening minutes, all the clues are silently telegraphed to the audience without even any dialogues.

If you are unfamiliar with the three movies mentioned above, I highly recommend you give them a chance (Pushing Hands is available on Amazon Prime). They are also much more accessible than Edward Yang’s works. Besides, they feature opening scenes like this:

After the debuts, Ang Lee officially launched his career in the Western hemisphere, which eventually sets him apart from most other Asian movie masters (IMHO), and put him side by side with Kurosawa, for he is able to find mainstream success in the English speaking world.

His English debut was Sense and Sensibility (1995), which became a low key masterpiece. On the surface, it seemed improbable that this would be his first Hollywood success, with him being an Asian man who still had very broken English at the time, directing his first Hollywood movie that was adapted from an English literature classic and filled with an all-star British cast. Yet it turned out to be a natural fit for Ang Lee’s sensibility (no pun intended), and a perfect follow-up to his first three movies as it is another story about family conflicts in a reserved environment. On top of that, the female voices of Jane Austen and Emma Thompson probably made it even better. In pursuing his dream of becoming a director, Lee was shunned by his father for many years, who warned him about the lack of opportunity for an outsider like him; after graduating from film school, Lee spent the next 6 years mostly being the househusband, supported by his wife’s stipend as a graduate student. This part of his life is probably one of the reasons that Lee is so comfortable with the female perspective in all his works, and how his female characters always stood out in his movies.

His next Hollywood works are The Ice Storm (1997 – another great movie about family drama, set in America this time) and Ride with the Devils (1999). By all accounts, they received less acclaims than S&S. Perhaps his culturally-mixed observant touch is less compatible with materials that are too “American”: The Hulk (2003), Taking Woodstock (2009) and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016) have all failed to register, but more on the last one later.

That leaves us with two movies in Chinese and two more in English. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2001) was a huge hit in America – which is quite surprising. Back home, the general public were not nearly as enthusiastic: the wire-fu looked too unnatural and different from what we were used to, and the accents of the main cast turned many people off. But it is a great movie. The phenomenal fight choreography and the beautiful cinematography aside, the emotional core is partially reminiscent of the Dashwood sisters in S&S: two women who deal with their emotions and pursuit for freedom in drastically different ways. One is repressed by circumstance, while the other one tries her all to break out.

In contrast, Lust, Caution (2007) might be his most audacious work, if just for its explicit depiction of sex alone, which earned the movie an NC-17 rating in the US. Tang Wei’s (debut!) performance was nothing short of incredible, especially given what she was asked to do. Meanwhile, Lee never once made the sex scenes gratuitous or exploitative, framing each of them as a turning point that chronicles the character’s tragic arc. But aside from that, Lee showed off how he could build tension with multiple Mahjong scenes like this:

The acting, the editing, the camera…… it’s almost orgasmic, pardon my French. The veteran supporting actresses set aside the rookie Tang Wei made it even more perfect. These ladies are practically in a Mexican standoff in their Mahjong games, all the while laughing and chitchatting. It is such a rewarding cinematic experience, and Ang Lee must have felt it too. Due to the heavily sensitive subject: sex, and centered around ROC officials at the time, it is to be expected that the PRC government would not just be too blasé about it. Nevertheless, Ang Lee personally worked to produce a special cut just for the censorship, and miraculously, it was granted mainland release! However, it was still pulled from the theatres very soon because somebody high up suddenly changed his mind. In the end, the movie was robbed from many audiences in both markets, and I think it deserves to be recognized by more people.

(*Side note: I happened to know someone who knows someone at the time. Rumor has it that some party senior mentioned how this movie was a disgrace and should be banned at some random occasion. Then, the underlings scrambled to fulfill his will.)

Lee’s other two successful English movies are Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Life of Pi (2012), each earned him a Best Director Oscar. Unlike the ones that didn’t quite take off, they shared an “otherness” that is Lee’s true wheelhouse. Another interesting fact is that ever since he started working in Hollywood, he has not done another movie with original script again, until his upcoming Thrilla in Manila. I think Lee enjoys being an observer, presenting the stories he loves to the world, adding his own scholarly and intimate flavors, but never in an intruding manner. This subdued and non-confrontational attitude dominates the majority of his successful works, and determined the “mixed responses” he got for The Hulk.

That brings us to Billy Lynn. The movie touches on the Iraq War, football and halftime show, veterans, faith…… basically the subjects that are just so red white and blue. However, it got practically no response in the US. The critics certainly didn’t care for it. The public on both sides were probably not ready to accept the views of an outsider. Lee even chose to literally magnify the uncomfortable aspects of them by using his experimental 3D+4K+120fps technology. Since the hardware was not widely available, most people only got to see the movie with a presentation that it wasn’t designed for, which could be quite jarring with the extreme close-ups and camera works he had used for 120fps.

However, Lee has clearly invested so much into this film that he was uncharacteristically agitated this time. In this sense, Billy Lynn might just be his most personal work – hey, even his own son had a major role in the film this time!

Of course, he did not voice any of his grievances to the US press. However, during the press tour in China, he was surprisingly candid in many interviews, at least by his own standard. He spoke about how he knew he would never be considered an insider by Hollywood; he said he tried this new technology because he was “getting old” and didn’t want to wait for the innovations, and was quite disappointed by the critics who wrote it off as a gimmick; he defended 120fps and stood by its encouragement of changes in movie making. He specifically said that he knew the subject would be too sensitive, even though he had toned down the anger in the source material, instead focusing on a boy’s journey back home, and his inevitable return to the war.

He’s probably right. After all, aside from The Hurt Locker, whose box office number was also miserable by the way, there is no other Iraq War movie that has been accepted. On top of that, Lee has expressed his disappointment on not winning Best Picture despite having two Oscars himself, as he felt it was unfair to his cast and crew. Coincidentally, 2016 was also the year he had to join a statement criticizing a racist Asian joke at the ceremony. All things considered, it was probably understandable that he would be “venting” as much as he did.

I do want to be clear that, he has never used any language that could be considered strong in America. Even when he’s complaining, he is still the polite bookish movie nerd that would never raise his voice. And that’s the essence of Ang Lee: sensitive, wise, composed, but also provocative, adventurous, and with a wicked sense of humor. His body of work is comparable to American masters such as Scorsese and Coppola in my opinion, and he’s the only director ever to have 2 DGA awards, 2 Oscars for directing, 2 BAFTAs and 2 Golden Globes for directing, 2 Golden Lions and 2 Golden Bears. As someone from a similar background, I deeply appreciate how his works resonate with me, and I’m glad his unique artistic voice has a place in this world.

In conclusion, a very sincere happy 63rd birthday to Mr. Ang Lee. I hope there are many more spectacular films to come by this visionary master.